Silica: What’s all the fuss about?

After nearly 15 years and countless conversations with stakeholders representing every conceivable side of the issue, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced a new rule on silica exposure last week. The rule creates two standards. One standard applies to general industry and maritime, and the to other standard applies to the construction industry.

Silicosis has been on OSHA’s radar since the 1930s. In this three-minute video, a man explains how he lost his father to silicosis when he was just eight years old.

If you haven’t been watching the story unfold, you might be wondering what all the fuss is about. So let’s take a closer look at silica and why OSHA spent so much of its time and sparse resources addressing it.

What is silica, and why is it dangerous?

Silica is a mineral found in the Earth’s crust. It is also a key component of sand, concrete, stone, mortar and other similar materials.

In its natural state, silica isn’t dangerous. But when it is ground into tiny particles called crystalline silica and we breath it, silica can wreak havoc on our bodies.

Crystalline silica exposure can result in cancer, tuberculosis, autoimmune diseases and a lung disease known as silicosis.

OSHA estimates the new silica rules will save over 600 lives, prevent more than 900 new cases of silicosis and provide net benefits of about $7.7 billion annually.

Who’s at risk?

OSHA estimates over two million workers are exposed to respirable crystalline silica. About 1.85 million of them work in the construction industry.

Any job that involves cutting, sawing, drilling, using sand products and crushing concrete, brick, block, rock and stone products increases workers’ silica exposure.

That means the rough necks and tool pushers who make their living in Texas’ oil and gas fields are at risk. So is anyone who works in glass manufacturing, demolition, sand blasting, masonry manufacturing, cement manufacturing and artificial stone countertop fabrication.

Why did we need a new silica rule?

OSHA said the previous silica rule did not adequately protect workers. The old rule’s permissible exposure limit (PEL) was based on research from the 1960s, and it did not reflect recent scientific evidence. Furthermore, the old rule did not consider the emergence of hydraulic fracturing, stone and artificial stone countertop fabrication and other industries that put workers at risk.

Key compliance dates
OSHA staggered the new silica rule compliance dates to give businesses enough time to meet the requirements: 

Construction industry – June 23, 2017, one year after the effective date

General industry and maritime – June 23, 2018, two years after the effective date

Hydraulic fracturing – June 23, 2018, two years after the effective date for all provisions except engineering controls, which have a compliance date of June 23, 2021

What does the new rule do?

  • Reduces the PEL for respirable crystalline silica to 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air, averaged over an 8-hour shift, for all workplaces covered by the standard (general industry/maritime and construction). The new PEL is roughly 50 percent of the previous PEL for general industry and 20 percent of the previous PEL for construction and shipyards.
  • Requires employers to put control measures in place that reduce workers’ exposure. Employers must ensure silica dust is wetted down or vacuumed up before workers can inhale it. The rule also requires employers to limit access to high-exposure areas, train employees, provide respiratory protection when controls do not adequately limit exposure, provide written exposure control plans, and offer medical exams to highly exposed workers.
  • Provides flexible compliance dates to employers, especially small businesses, to protect workers from silica exposure.

More resources

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