In August, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) that included modifications to a 40-year-old-plus standard that addresses respirable crystalline silica exposure limits and other silica-related hazards. If finalized, OSHA believes that the rule will save nearly 700 lives and prevent up to 1,600 cases of silicosis each year. 


Inhaling respirable crystalline silica particles is very hazardous. Respirable particles, which are less than one-­hundredth the size of a grain of sand, bypass your body’s filters, reaching the inner part of the lung. These particles become airborne as a result of sawing, grinding and drilling stone, concrete, brick and mortar. 


According to David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for Occupational Safety and Health, “Exposure to silica can be deadly, and limiting that exposure is essential. Every year, many exposed workers not only lose their ability to work, but also to breathe. This proposal is expected to prevent thousands of deaths from silicosis—an incurable and progressive disease—as well as lung cancer, other respiratory diseases, and kidney disease. Workers affected by silica are fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers lost to entirely preventable illnesses.” 


The long-awaited proposed rule was issued on the heels of pressure from labor unions arguing that existing silica exposure limits were outdated and needed to be reduced to decrease instances of silicosis and other illnesses, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). However, the American Chemistry Council has noted that the mortality rate from silicosis has dropped more than 90 percent over the last 45 years and that, “the cases of silicosis that still occur result from noncompliance with the current” limit. 


Other groups have criticized the federal Office of Management and Budget for sitting on analysis and studies that would have accelerated the issuance of these proposed provisions. In response, OSHA simply insists that it wanted to do a thorough evaluation reviewing all the new rules and the scientific studies that looked at the health risks associated with silica.


Key features of the current proposed regulation include periodic measuring for silica and medical testing requirements, including chest X-rays and lung function tests on all employees exposed to silica for more than 30 days per year. Other prospective changes include more stringent monitoring practices and the implementation of certain engineering controls to reduce silica levels. The most significant proposed change, though, pertains to a reduction in the permissible exposure limit (PEL) of 100 micrograms of silica dust per cubic meter to 50 micrograms for all general industry.


OSHA sought industry and stakeholder feedback and comments regarding the proposed rule. However, since the document is more than 750 pages long, many felt the imposed Dec. 11 deadline did not offer adequate time to review the document and formulate comments. 


In fact, the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA), along with a number of other industry associations, has formally asked OSHA for a 90-day extension on the comment period. 


Michael Johnston, NECA’s executive director for standards and safety, said, “NECA has the responsibility to make a careful and thorough review of the complete document to identify places where electrical safety is at cross-purposes with the proposed silica rule.” 


At present, it is OSHA’s intention to hold public hearings to review all comments beginning in March 2014. 


Furthermore, there are concerns that relate to the practicality of implementing certain measures. For example, spraying water to reduce dust and silica levels is not practical when conducting electrical work. 


“Some of the suggested control measures for silica, like spraying water to reduce dust, simply wouldn’t work on inside construction projects. As electrical contractors, we make every effort to keep water away from electrical installations in progress. That’s one of our industry’s primary safety regulations,” Johnston said. 


In addition to these concerns, there will be added costs for many businesses. OSHA estimates that the proposed rule will affect 534,000 companies, 90 percent of which are in the construction industry. These changes will result in more than $640 million in compliance costs, which equates to roughly $1,242 per company. However, OSHA believes that it will cost smaller businesses—employing 20 people or fewer—an average of $550 in annual compliance costs. 


On a positive note, OSHA estimates that implementation of these new rules will end up saving the construction industry as much as $4 billion in costs associated with silica-related illnesses.


Whether these differences are resolved between the industry and OSHA remains to be seen. Either way, there are very likely significant changes pertaining to silica and the construction industry on the horizon. For more information on the proposed changes to the crystalline silica regulations, visit www.osha.gov/silica/index.html.