OSHA recently unveiled two new rules for protecting workers from exposure to Respirable Crystalline Silica—one for the Construction Industry and the other for General Industry/Maritime. Although the requirements for General Industry/Maritime do not take effect until June 23, 2018, OSHA began enforcing the Construction standard effective September 23, 2017. Between September 23 and October 22, OSHA offered compliance assistance in lieu of enforcement for employers who were making good faith efforts to comply with the new standard. Effective October 23, 2017, OSHA commenced full enforcement of the Construction standard.

What is crystalline silica? It is a natural mineral found in the earth's crust that is contained in common construction materials such as sand, stone, concrete, and mortar. The material is used to make glass, ceramics, bricks, masonry block, and artificial stone, to name a few. Respirable crystalline silica is a hazard to human health and is created by an array of common construction activities such as sawing brick or concrete; drilling into concrete; grinding mortar; manufacturing brick, concrete blocks, stone countertops, and cutting or crushing stone. These result in worker exposures to respirable crystalline silica dust, which are very small particles—at least 100 times smaller than sand at the beach. When inhaled, crystalline silica particles increase a worker’s risk of developing a number of serious diseases, including:

  • Silicosis (an incurable lung disease that can lead to disability and death)
  • Lung cancer
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Kidney disease

In an effort to reduce workers' exposure to silica dust, the new rule requires employers to use engineering controls and work practices as the primary way to keep exposure to crystalline silica at a safe level (knows as the “Permissible Exposure Limit” (PEL)). Simply providing employees with a respirator is not enough. Engineering controls include, but are not limited to:

  • Wet methods. This involves wetting down work when cutting and sawing materials containing crystalline silica, and wetting down a surface before sweeping up dust.
  • Ventilation. This involves local exhaust ventilation (such as specialized vacuums) to keep silica-containing dust out of the air and out of workers' lungs.
  • Process isolation. This involves enclosing an operation where crystalline silica is likely to become airborne.
  • Respirators. An employer may rely on respirators alone only when engineering and work practice controls cannot maintain exposures at or below a safe level.

Employers should familiarize themselves with Table 1. As part of the Construction Industry rule, OSHA published a list, known as Table 1, that identifies 18 common construction tasks along with exposure control methods and work practices that are well suited for those tasks that can be employed to comply with the new requirements. Employers who fully and properly implement the engineering controls, work practices, and respiratory protection specified for a task on Table 1 are not required to measure respirable crystalline silica exposures to verify that levels are at or below the PEL for workers engaged in a Table 1 task. An excerpt from Table 1 follows:

What about states with OSHA approved state plans? States with OSHA-approved state plans have six months to adopt standards that are at least as effective as Federal OSHA standards. Many state plans adopt standards identical to OSHA, but some state plans may have different or more stringent requirements.

Additional information. The Respirable Crystalline Silica Standard for the Construction Industry is codified at 29 CFR § 1926.1153. OSHA has a webpage dedicated to the new rules that can be accessed at HERE. Finally, OSHA published a compliance guide intended for small businesses, which can be accessed at HERE.