In 2016, OSHA published a final rule updating its more than 40-year-old respirable crystalline silica exposure limits and mitigated other silica-related hazards. Silica can cause health conditions ranging from silicosis to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease to lung cancer and even renal and autoimmune disorders.
Although many industry groups opposed certain provisions of the standard, it went into full effect and enforcement in late 2017. Most stakeholder concerns in the construction industry revolved around the added costs associated with implementing new protective measures necessary for compliance.
In 2017 and 2018, the most commonly cited portion of the silica standard was inadequate or no air monitoring mechanisms in place. The second-most cited violation addressed inadequate or missing written exposure-control plans. The standard for the construction industry requires a site-specific plan with a designated competent person to be present and qualified to implement the program at all times. Other citations were written for training violations, respiratory protection lapses, inadequate medical surveillance programs and housekeeping violations (e.g., inappropriate cleanup methods such as dry brushing, dry sweeping and most uses of compressed air).
The standard provides employers with the flexibility of three separate options to comply with requirements. One of those options is through Table 1, Specified Exposure Control Methods When Working with Materials Containing Crystalline Silica, which lists 18 silica-generating tasks along with specific engineering controls and respirator requirements. Contractors that abide by these requirements do not have to conduct air monitoring and are presumed to be operating under the maximum permissible exposure limit.
However, the large number of citations for air monitoring indicate that construction employers have improperly relied on Table 1, and some contractors incorrectly thought their work fell under the purview of the table.
In her article, “OSHA Silica Enforcement: Behind the Statistics” for the American Society of Safety Professionals, attorney and safety professional Adele L. Abrams writes, “While construction employers may largely follow Table 1 if their work falls within the 18 enumerated categories of tasks and equipment, there is still a requirement to have the control plan on site and available for inspection by workers and by OSHA.”
In August 2019, OSHA issued a call for comments on prospective changes to Table 1. According to an OSHA press release, “Expanding Table 1 to include additional engineering and work practice control methods, equipment, and tasks could provide employers with more flexibility and reduce regulatory burdens while maintaining protections for employees.”
OSHA also solicited comments on other silica-generating construction equipment and tasks to determine other potential additions to Table 1. These comments coincide with information gathered about their associated engineering and work practice control methods.
OSHA collected input through November 2019 and is currently processing all submissions and information received in preparation to make modifications to the regulation.
Possible updates include additional control measures and clarifications, removal of mortar mixing and drywall installation/finishing, adding an “under one hour” column for short-term activities, adding dry-cutting with vacuum attachments for stationary and handheld masonry saws, using a standard shop-vac for dry-vacuum dust collection with tool accessories, using alternative water delivery methods with tools that do not have an integral water delivery built in, and using air scrubbers that filter recirculated air and air dispersion.
Additionally, the agency is in the process of determining whether to modify its silica standard for general industry, in an effort to “broaden the circumstances under which general industry and maritime employers would be permitted to comply with Table 1 of the silica standard for construction,” according to OSHA.
While changes to the standard remain a priority for the agency, the COVID-19 pandemic and change in presidential administration have slowed the process. Expect to see the formal process start moving forward again by the end of the year.
In the meantime, OSHA issued updated work-site-inspection guidelines to its staff regarding enforcement of the standard. These guidelines, released in September 2020, also give employers a better understanding of what to expect if and when they are involved in an OSHA inspection.