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What Does the OSHA Silica Rule Really Mean?

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The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recently adopted a new regulation in regards to airborne silica. The rule came into effect on June 23, 2016, which means that employers in the construction industry have one year from that date to become compliant with most of the rules’ requirements. The rule is said to affect over 2 million US workers in several industries.

Here is what the new construction regulation for respirable crystalline silica says:

  • Reduces the allowable limit for airborne crystalline silica to 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air, averaged over an 8-hour shift.

  • Requires employers to use engineering controls and/or provide respirators when levels exceed the limit, and limit worker exposure to areas with high levels of silica.

  • Requires employers to develop a written exposure control plan, provide periodic medical check-ups to certain workers, and train all workers on the risks of airborne silica and how to avoid exposure.

  • Provide regular medical monitoring to workers exposed to high levels of silica, and give these workers information on their lung health.

  • Provides flexibility so that small companies can comply with the requirements without incurring large expenses.

The Danger of Silica

Crystalline silica has been known to be a health danger for many years. The breathing in of small silica dust particles has been shown to cause lung cancer, silicosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and kidney disease. The dust is found in stone, ceramics, masonry, concrete, and similar materials when they are ground up or cut.

The dangers of silica first came to light in the 1930s, and initial limits to exposure were established in 1971 when OSHA was first formed. Those limits hadn’t been changed since then, and workers were being exposed in greater numbers with the advent of artificial stone fabrication and hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking. The number of workers suffering from silica-related illnesses was increasing, as well.

Starting in 2013, OSHA began the process of reviewing and revising its silica exposure regulations, and after extensive collaboration with industry, scientific research, and public hearings, it released the new limits to take effect in June 2016.

Employers in the construction industry have one year to comply with most of the new requirements. General industry and maritime companies, including the hydraulic fracturing industry, have two years to reach compliance, except that the fracking industry has until 2021 to develop the required engineering controls.

The new OSHA silica rule is expected to save an estimated 600 lives each year, once it is in full effect, and will prevent over 900 cases of silicosis each year.

Dust Control Requirements

In the majority of cases, at least in the construction industry, adherence to the silica regulation will come in the form of dust control measures, such as using water to wet the dust or a vacuum to suck it up, to limit the exposure to silica dust. Tools that offer these kinds of integral control measures are available now, and will be in higher demand in the near future.

Certain activities that create a higher level of silica dust will require workers to wear respiration equipment in addition to the recommended dust control method. Workers that spend a lot of time in an environment where respirators are necessary will be required to have regular medical exams and have their lung function evaluated.

The regulation contains a table (Table 1) with some common construction activities, the recommended engineering or dust control method, and whether and what type of respiration protection is required based on the number of hours the worker will be exposed to the hazard.

Excerpt from Table 1:

Equipment/Task – Handheld power saws (any blade diameter)

Engineering and Work Practice Control Methods – Use saw equipped with integral water delivery system that continuously feeds water to the blade. Operate and maintain tool in accordance with manufacturer’s instructions to minimize dust emissions. 

Required Respiratory Protection and Minimum Assigned Protection Factor (APF):

  • Less than 4 hours per shift – when used outdoors – None
  • Less than 4 hours per shift – when used indoors or in an enclosed area – APF 10*
  • More than 4 hours per shift – when used outdoors – APF 10*
  • More than 4 hours per shift – when used indoors or in an enclosed area – APF 10*

*APF 10 protection is equivalent to a dusk mask.

Contractors will find that in most cases, silica exposure can be brought to a safe level using effective dust control, such as water or vacuum suction. When dust control cannot be performed, worker exposure must be controlled through engineering controls, limiting the time of exposure, and the use of respirators.

If an employer chooses not to employ the dust control measures given in Table 1 of the regulation, then the company must test the amount of silica in the air, and if it is above 25 micrograms per cubic meter of air, averaged over an 8-hour period, it must employ dust control measures to ensure that the level does not go above the 50 microgram limit, or provide respirators when those measures aren’t possible. The 25 microgram level is called the “action level” by the regulation.

Other Requirements

The silica regulation requires employers to set up a written exposure control plan, which details the activities most commonly undertaken, the method of dust or exposure control, and includes procedures for restricting access to areas where high exposure will occur. In addition, a “competent person” must be designated for implementing the exposure control plan and assessing areas of exposure.

Employers will need to assess their current housekeeping methods and insure that alternatives that lower the risk of airborne silica exposure are employed. Training workers to identify silica exposure opportunities and how to reduce their risks is also required.

Workers who are required to wear a respirator for more than 30 days in a calendar year will need to have regular employer-provided medical exams. These exams include a baseline exam to assess lung function before exposure and a chest X-ray, and regular check-ups every 3 years to compare lung function over time. Workers must be allowed to receive reports of these exams. Employers must keep records of these exams and the workers’ exposure level over time.

Costs to Employers

The technology to employ the required dust control methods is readily available in the current market, so it is not anticipated that employers will have any difficulty in meeting the standard, nor should there be any great expense in doing so. In fact, many employers are already employing the necessary controls.

Employers do have some flexibility in how they choose to comply with the regulation. Air testing is not required if control measures are used, but employers can choose to test the amount of silica in the air to see if the specified control measures are required.

According to OSHA’s FAQ (frequently asked questions) sheet on the new rule, “The rule is expected to result in annual costs of about $1,524 for the average workplace covered by the rule. The annual cost to a firm with fewer than twenty employees will be less, averaging about $560.”

The total cost of implementing the new rule is said to be over $1 billion, as there are so many companies and employees affected.

Gap in Coverage

One thing to remember is that the new OSHA airborne silica rule only protects workers in environments with high levels of respirable silica. The general public is not covered under this regulation. With many buildings undergoing renovations while being occupied, construction workers are not the only ones who need to be protected.


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