Bringing to a close a long, controversial safety stand-off in the construction industry, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) today announced a final rule on respirable silica dust. In short, OSHA is seeking to strengthen safety requirements to protect workers from exposure, and it means contractors will need to take more measures to comply.
Exposure to respirable crystalline silica has been proven to cause lung cancer, silicosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and kidney disease, and for a long time, everyone has agreed that these are bad ailments we should seek to protect workers from; however, it seemed industry authorities could not agree on the measures to combat these sicknesses.
OSHA outlined the general guidelines of the rule and they include the following:
- Employers will need to reduce the permissible exposure limit for crystalline silica to 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air, averaged over an eight-hour shift.
- Employers will need to use engineering controls (such as water or ventilation) and work practices to limit worker exposure; provide respiratory protection when controls are not able to limit exposures to the permissible level; limit access to high exposure areas; train workers; and provide medical exams to highly exposed workers.
- Employers will need to follow a table of specified controls, which OSHA says will provide a greater certainty and ease the compliance of construction employers without requiring them to monitor exposures.
The obvious concern for contractors has been, if this rule becomes official, how and when will they be required to comply. OSHA said it will stagger compliance dates, so employers will have sufficient time to meet the requirements. OSHA specifically mentioned the fracking industry's concerns for engineering controls and the general industry's concerns about offering medical surveillance to employees.
The final rule is written as two standards, one for construction and one for general industry and maritime.
“More than 80 years ago, Labor Secretary Frances Perkins identified silica dust as a deadly hazard and called on employers to fully protect workers,” said U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez in a press release. “This rule will save lives. It will enable workers to earn a living without sacrificing their health. It builds upon decades of research and a lengthy stakeholder engagement process—including the consideration of thousands of public comments—to finally give workers the kind of protection they deserve and that Frances Perkins had hoped for them.”
OSHA estimates that, when the final rule on Occupational Exposure to Respirable Crystalline Silica becomes fully effective, it will save more than 600 lives annually and prevent more than 900 new cases of silicosis each year. The agency also estimates the final rule will provide net benefits of about $7.7 billion per year.
Employers covered by the construction standard must comply with most requirements by June 23, 2017. Employers covered by the general industry and maritime standard must comply with most requirements by June 23, 2018.
For more information, visit www.osha.gov/silica. And keep an eye on ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR as we provide more details in the months ahead to help you adjust to the effects of this decision.