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Silica Dust Rule


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If you’re in the dark about what the new silica-dust rule means for you, you’re not alone. The new standard is by far one of OSHA’s most comprehensive and complex health and safety regulations to hit the construction industry in years. 

“What we’re seeing is not anything close to what folks had anticipated,” said Kevin Cannon, the director of safety and health for AGC of America. “The biggest thing is still trying to sort it out. Even some of the larger companies are still trying to figure it out.”  

As confusing and intimidating as the new regulation may seem, there are some basic and concrete steps you can take to become OSHA compliant and ensure your workers stay healthy and safe.  

You Make Me Sick: The Dangers of Inhaling Silica Dust

One of the worst cases of acute silicosis, a disease caused by inhaling silica dust, occurred in the 1930s during the construction of the Gauley Bridge tunnel at Hawk's Nest, West Virginia. Some 2,000 tunnel workers drilled and blasted through high-silica rock with no protection. 

More than 1,000 men are believed to have died as a result of inhaling silica dust. Workers died so quickly that they were reportedly buried in a cornfield in an attempt to cover up the severity of the tragedy. 

Hawk’s Nest is considered one of the worst industrial disasters in American history. It prompted a congressional investigation into the dangers of silicosis in the workplace.  

Silicosis’ Devastating Aftermath

Fast forward nearly a century later, and silicosis continues to kill and leave devastated families coping with the aftermath. 

For Tom Ward, a brick and stone mason from Michigan, silicosis’ impact could still be felt more than 30 years later. His father died of the disease at the age of 39, after working as a sandblaster. Ward testified about the delays in OSHA’s silica standard before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions in 2012. Here is a part of that testimony: 

“When I was 13 my father died of silicosis. In his 20s, I remember he worked as a sandblaster for five to six years...I do remember going to work with my dad a couple of times. I remember old rusty truck frames coming in to be blasted and primed, the effort he put into his job, his work ethic...After he left his job sandblasting, he took a job where he was represented by the Teamsters’ Union, he had good pay and benefits that my family relied on. A few years into his new job, he started getting short of breath. We got the official diagnosis––silicosis––when he was 34 years old.

The hardest memory to live with is the last day he worked. He came in the door, fell to the floor and started crying. He said, ‘I can’t do it anymore.’...it took five years for silicosis to kill him. It was a slow and very painful process for me, my sisters and for my mother to witness. In the end, his disease suffocated him.”

It would be another four years, following this hearing and many subsequent others, before the new OSHA silica standard rule would be put into place.

Silicosis: The Silent Killer

The industrial material is crystalline silica and it’s all around us, especially in rocks and sand. Most of us know it as quartz, which accounts for 12 percent of the earth’s crust. If it’s pretty much everywhere, how can it be so bad? 

When left alone, silica behaves nicely. But when it’s disrupted, that’s when the real trouble starts.

Anytime you drill, cut, crush and grind silica, the cloud of dust you see contains microscopic particles known as respirable crystalline silica––each of which is about 100 times smaller than a grain of sand. When it is inhaled, respirable crystalline silica can wreak havoc on your lungs and lead to debilitating and potentially deadly diseases, such as silicosis (an incurable lung disease), lung cancer, and kidney disease. 

Since 2000, silicosis is responsible for the deaths of more than than 2,000 Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control. That number is higher on an annualized basis than the number of fatal accidents from coal mining––one of the country’s most dangerous jobs. 

Every day, some 2.3 million workers are exposed to crystalline silica. With the new rule in place, OSHA expects to save the lives of 600 workers and prevent more than 900 cases of silicosis each year. 

One OSHA health expert describes the progression of silicosis this way: “Take a straw about the diameter of a dime and try to draw air from the straw. And as time progresses, shrink the diameter of the straw and then put a bag over your head, because you slowly suffocate.” 

The majority of workers develop silicosis in their 30s, however, there are little to no symptoms in the early stages of the disease. Depending on the level of silica dust exposure, silicosis can develop within months of intense dust exposure or it can go undetected by chest x-ray for 10 years or more, following low-level exposure. 

Here are some symptoms to look out for:

  • Shortness of breath  
  • Loss of appetite
  • Chest pain
  • Persistent cough and/or wheezing
  • Fatigue

The New Legal Limit and What it Means for You  

Beginning September 23, the permissible exposure limit (PEL) will be 50 micrograms of respirable crystalline silica per cubic meter of air averaged over an eight-hour workshift––down from 100 micrograms. 

What is PEL? 

It’s the exposure limit a worker is legally allowed to breath. The way to calculate the PEL is by three factors: air, dust, and time. As an owner/contractor, superintendent, project, quality or safety manager, the PEL is extremely important not only for OSHA compliance purposes, but for the health and safety of your workers.    

Measuring the PEL can be done through air sampling methods that are sent to a lab. The cost of air sampling is about $100. If you would rather forgo the air monitoring route, you can follow the steps outlined in Table 1 (in the next chapter). 

In addition to controlling the dust levels, there are several mandatory provisions an employer must follow to remain OSHA compliant:

  • Employers must use engineering controls, such as water or ventilation, to limit worker exposure.
  • Provide respirators when levels exceed PEL.
  • Implement a written exposure control plan.
  • Communicate silica hazards and provide worker training on silica risks and how to avoid exposure.  
  • Provide medical exams to workers who will need to wear a respirator for 30 or more days a year.

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