Silica—The New Buzz Word in Construction

Silica! Just the word alone conjures images of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) inspectors, citations, respirators and expensive tools to comply with the regulations. Silica! Will every person in construction come down with silicosis? Silica! So, what are the effects from silica on an average or even large contractors working in construction today. Silica! How do we control nature and determine concentrations that are naturally occurring in our environment at a given point in time or at a specific location? Only through education about silica itself, the regulations and the health effects can we prepare to address our response and actions related to Silica!

OSHA released a final rule on respirable crystalline silica to address health hazards identified in General Industry, Maritime and Construction. OSHA stated that the existing provisions of the old rule did not offer adequate protection for the workers who were exposed. OSHA proposed and implemented new lower exposure limits to protect these workers. The provisions for the rule went into effect on June 23rd, 2017 with delayed enforcement by the agency for construction until Sept. 23, 2017. General Industry and Maritime have until June 23rd, 2018 to be in full compliance.

With new permissible exposure limits (PELs) and new action levels, employers are challenged to ensure no workers are exposed to respirable silica in the workplace. Table 1, found in 29 CFR 1926.1153, addresses OSHA’s three-tier approach to protecting workers—engineering controls, administrative controls and personal protective equipment (PPE). Here the organization has listed wet cut methods and vacuums with high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters as some the engineering means to protect workers. The next option available and recommended to be used with engineering controls is limiting the time a worker can perform the job functions, which is an administrative control. Lastly, OSHA lists the conditions where a respirator may be needed, which is PPE the worker must use in those situations.

By using PPE, however, other OSHA regulations become intertwined with the new silica regulations. Respirator use requires an employer to create and use a written respirator program that complies with 29 CFR 1910.134. The new silica rule also indicates that, if an employee wears a respirator for 30 or more days a year, they must be offered medical surveillance for follow-up evaluations with a physician or other licensed health care provider.  

OSHA allows for alternative exposure control methods that require an employer to ensure workers are not exposed to respirable crystalline silica at levels higher than the PEL of 50 µg/m3 over an eight-hour time weighted average (TWA). This requires an exposure assessment wherever it is anticipated a worker would be exposed over the action level, which is 25 µg/m3 as an 8-hour TWA. The performance option under this method requires air monitoring to create objective data representative of workplace conditions and exposures a worker could reasonably be exposed to. The scheduled monitoring options allows for initial monitoring that may indicate no exposure or exposure below the action level, which would negate future monitoring as long as conditions did not change. If levels are above the PEL, repeat monitoring would be required until two tests are taken seven days apart with results below the action level. (Please see OSHA Publication 3902, Small Entity Compliance Guide to Respirable Crystalline Silica Standard for Construction).

As part of the new standard, a competent person must be designated to perform inspections initially and on a regular basis. The competent person must be able to identify and predict exposures to respirable crystalline silica and take prompt corrective actions to eliminate or minimize the silica hazards. This competent person must also be familiar with the written exposure control plan and how to implement it. This person must be qualified and know the proper tools and methods of compliance and recognize if controls are not working.

Since the days of the Hawks Nest Dam project in the 1930s, medical evidence has shown the effects of respirable crystalline silica on workers in construction. With best practices and engineering controls, many of the exposures related to silica have been minimized and even prevented. Employers have used filters and wet cut methods for years and the records show that reportable cases have declined recently. It is important to note that the European Union in 2017 has standardized on a PEL for respirable crystalline silica of .1 milligram per cubic meter, which is equivalent to the old general industry PEL of 100 µg/m3 (.1 mg = 100 µg).

Employers working in the construction industry will generally opt to use the Table 1 specified exposure control methods when working with materials containing crystalline silica because it covers the tasks many construction workers perform. Compliance with this option will depend on an employer designating the competent person, providing training to all workers on the hazards associated with silica and possible exposures, providing the resources and tools that enable engineering controls and lastly, ensuring that all workers are protected by PPE if it is required for the task. Employers must also ensure they go further than providing the controls methods that are identified in Table 1; in addition, employers must ensure they are used and maintained in functional/operational condition while the work is being performed.

Silica is the new buzz word in construction, and with that, everyone in construction needs to be familiar with it and how to provide appropriate protection when required. With housekeeping challenges ranging from disposing of the byproducts from drilling and cutting that could contain silica particles to the prohibition of dry-sweeping and keeping other persons from entering areas where silica exposure could occur, employers must take all precautions and train workers to protect themselves. Knowing the regulations, the exposure control methods, the tools, PPE and methods that can be used to protect workers will help all employers to keep workers safe. Recognizing and communicating any silica hazards found on a construction site will help all employers maintain the required protection to comply with OSHA regulations.

About the Author

Wesley L. Wheeler

Executive Director of Safety, NECA

WHEELER, SMS, is NECA’s executive director of safety and is a committee member on NFPA 70, the National Electrical Code, CMP-7 and a former technical committee member on NFPA 70E. He also serves as an employer representative on the OSHA ACCSH...

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