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OSHA’s New Silica Standards Could Help Protect Workers

Silica, or quartz, is a common mineral found on many construction sites. Silica is found in masonry, concrete, granite, many types of landscape materials, and even soil and rock. While silica is ubiquitous, it can also be dangerous. When materials containing silica are disturbed in any way- including through cutting or drilling- tiny silica particles are created. These are then breathed in to the lungs. Serious lung conditions can result.

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Crystalline silica is considered a carcinogen which can prompt cancer to form in the lungs. Breathing in the dust from silica has also been linked to a severe and potentially fatal condition called silicosis. Preventing exposure to silica at work is essential to stopping employees from developing health issues including serious breathing problems.

Unfortunately, regulations from Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) were not sufficient to protect workers from dangerous levels of exposure to silica. Employees in high-risk fields like mining and construction were thus getting sick and turning to workers’ comp to get benefits and costs covered.  Now, fortunately, OSHA has new regulations. Employers and employees need to be aware of new rules when it comes to silica on a worksite.

New Silica Standards Could Make Worksites Safer

OSHA’s new rule on silica exposure is described by Safety News Alert of the most significant safety regulation changes in years.

OSHA actually issued two different rules dealing with silica. One rule is specific to the construction industry and the other applies to both general industry and maritime workers. Employers who are covered by the standard applicable in the construction industry must comply with new requirements by June 23, 2017 while employers subject to the general regulation have until June 23, 2018.  Employers are also given additional time to comply with rules regarding providing medical exams to certain workers, and hydraulic fracturing employers are given additional compliance time to install dust controls so exposure limits can be made.

The compliance time is necessary because OSHA’s new regulation makes some profound changes. One change involves a reduction in the permissible exposure limit. For crystalline silica, the permissible exposure limit is now 50 micrograms per cubic meter, with the exposure amount averaged out over an eight hour work shift.

The new rule also mandates employers make use of water, ventilation, or other engineering controls to limit exposure, and that respiratory protections be provided in situations where exposure levels cannot be brought down to permissible limits.

OSHA estimates its new regulations could save as many as 600 lives annually and could prevent more than 900 people from developing silicosis.  While it unfortunately will take some time for these new regulations to actually begin protecting workers, at least the new standard is a strong step in the right direction towards keeping employees safe from breathing in hazardous substances on the job.