Construction Workers Safer with New OSHA Silica Standard

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By Randy Palladino;

Construction sites are dusty places, but does that make them dangerous? If the dust contains pulverized rock or concrete there is more concern. One study showed silicosis deaths in the construction industry are higher than any other industry in the United States. Construction workers are clearly at risk of developing silicosis and other lung diseases if they breathe high levels of concrete and rock dust. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has issued a final rule to curb lung cancer, silicosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and kidney disease in America’s workers by limiting their exposure to respirable crystalline silica. The rule is comprised of two standards, one for Construction and one for General Industry and Maritime.

About 2.3 million workers are exposed to respirable crystalline silica in their workplaces, including 2 million construction workers who drill, cut, crush, or grind silica-containing materials such as concrete and stone, and 300,000 workers in general industry operations such as brick manufacturing, foundries, and hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking. Responsible employers have been protecting workers from harmful exposure to respirable crystalline silica for years, using widely-available equipment that controls dust with water or a vacuum system. Key provisions of the new standard:

  • Reduces the permissible exposure limit (PEL) for respirable crystalline silica to 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air, averaged over an 8-hour shift.
  • Requires employers to: use engineering controls (such as water or ventilation) to limit worker exposure to the PEL; provide respirators when engineering controls cannot adequately limit exposure; limit worker access to high exposure areas; develop a written exposure control plan, offer medical exams to highly exposed workers, and train workers on silica risks and how to limit exposures.
  • Provides medical exams to monitor highly exposed workers and gives them information about their lung health.
  • Provides flexibility to help employers — especially small businesses — protect workers from silica exposure.

Both standards contained in the final rule took effect on June 23, 2016, after which industries have one to five years to comply with most requirements. June 23, 2017, one year after the effective date will be the compliance date for construction.

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