Important Modifications: Proposed changes to silica regulations

On March 25, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) published its final rule, updating the more than 40-year-old standard addressing respirable crystalline silica exposure limits and other silica-related hazards. The rule will take effect on June 23, 2016, with enforcement beginning in the construction industry one year after that effective date. Employers covered by the general industry and maritime standard must comply with most requirements by June 23, 2018. According to the agency’s press release announcing the changes, “OSHA estimates that the rule will save over 600 lives and prevent more than 900 new cases of silicosis each year, once its effects are fully realized.”


Key features of the new final regulation are periodic measuring for silica and medical testing requirements. That includes chest X-rays and lung function tests for all employees exposed to silica at or above the permissible exposure limit (PEL) for more than 30 days per year. Other changes include more stringent monitoring practices and the implementation of certain engineering controls to reduce silica levels. The most significant modification will reduce the PEL of 100 micrograms of silica dust per cubic meter to 50 micrograms in an 8-hour day.


There is no question that silica is one of the leading causes of respirable illnesses at workplaces throughout the country. Inhaling silica particles can cause lung damage, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), tuberculosis and cancer. Respirable particles are less than one-hundredth the size of a grain of sand. These particles bypass the body’s normal filters and reach the inner part of the lung. Particles of this size become airborne as a result of working with stone, concrete, brick and mortar and when conducting activities such as sawing, grinding and drilling.


Fortunately, cases of these types of illnesses have been steadily declining for many years. In fact, the American Chemistry Council indicates that the mortality rate from silicosis has dropped more than 90 percent in the last 45 years. Many industry professionals attribute the improvement to the technological advancement of personal protective equipment (PPE) and greater hazard awareness among employers and their employees. Some even argue that a majority of silicosis diagnoses result from noncompliance with the old PELs. Despite the statistics, OSHA has not been able to ignore arguments from labor unions that the old silica exposure limits were outdated and needed to be lower.


During the rulemaking proceedings, David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for Occupational Safety and Health, said, “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.”


As a result, OSHA moved forward with this newly modified version of the rule.


Throughout the entire process, many construction industry groups opposed the new regulation. One argument was that OSHA had not sufficiently explained how a lowered PEL would effectively reduce silica-related illnesses. 


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. OSHA also estimates the rule will end up saving the industry as much as $7.7 billion associated with silica-related illnesses and will cost only $1,242 per year for the average workplace to implement. OSHA also believes that it will cost smaller businesses, employing 20 people or less, an average of only $550 in annual compliance costs. However, a study last year by the Construction Industry Safety Coalition forecast the cost of the silica rule on the U.S. construction industry at $5 billion per year, which is far greater than OSHA’s estimate.


The industry has until May 24 to challenge the rule in a federal appeals court. It remains to be seen if opposition groups will take this action or simply comply with the new rule come enforcement time. Regardless, instances of silica-related injuries and illnesses continue to decline in the workplace.

About the Author

Tom O'Connor

Safety Columnist

Tom O'Connor is safety and regulatory affairs manager for Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm that offers on-site assistance and produces manuals, training videos and software for contractors. Reach him at toconnor@intecweb.com.

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