OSHA is a branch of the Department of Labor that regulates the safety practices of businesses. In September 2017, OSHA launched a new set of requirements regarding respirable crystalline silica, which is found in many workplaces. The new standards will affect those working in construction, factories, and maritime businesses.
Crystalline silica is found in soil, granite, sand, and other common minerals. When these materials are cut, blasted, tunneled through, or drilled through, small particles of silica dust become respirable. Prolonged exposure to respirable crystalline silica poses severe health risks, including silicosis, a severely damaging, and potentially fatal, lung disease. Exposure to respirable crystalline silica increases the risk of developing lung infections and lung cancer. Medical care associated with these conditions costs the US over $2 billion annually.
In 1971, OSHA recognized the need for safety standards and implemented the following rules regarding silica in the workplace:
- Use silica substitutes whenever possible.
- Utilize ventilation and protective equipment.
- Reduce silica dust.
- Provide protective respirator masks.
- Wear disposable clothing covers while working.
Additionally, OSHA enforced a maximum permissible exposure limit (PEL) of 250 micrograms of silica per cubic meter during an 8-hour work day. This limit provided some protection, but deaths due to silicosis continued to occur in these industries. To reduce the number of deaths, in 1999, OSHA recommended lower PEL numbers. As a result, between 2001 and 2010, silicosis deaths decreased from 164 to 101 per year.
In September 2017, new respirable crystalline silica exposure guidelines took effect. These rules reduce silica exposure for the 2.2 million people that work in affected industries daily. Further reductions in exposure to crystalline silica are expected to significantly decrease related diseases and deaths and make workplaces safer.
The new standards require:
- Reduction of maximum PEL to 50 micrograms of silica per cubic meter
- Routine monitoring of silica exposure levels
- Limiting time spent in workplaces with silica exposure
- Providing medical exams to employees that are exposed to silica
- Educating employees on the risk of silica inhalation
Implementing the new guidelines will cost the average workplace about $1,200 annually. Simultaneously, these changes are projected to save the US government between 2 and 4 billion dollars annually on healthcare over the course of the next 60 years.
To assist employers in making mandated changes, OSHA published a detailed guide to silica safety on their website, which includes flowcharts detailing methods to control silica risks. The document also includes new strategies for minimizing silica exposure, including:
- Applying water to work surfaces whenever possible to minimize silica dust
- Providing showers and vacuums at worksites so employees can remove silica dust from clothing and equipment before leaving work
- Establish a written Exposure Control Plan for every workspace
To enforce the new standards, OSHA has created several rules designed to encourage employer compliance and protect employees. First, every workplace must write and submit an Exposure Control Plan (ECP) to OSHA that outlines the preventative and monitoring steps the workplace will take to comply with the safety standards. The Exposure Control Plan will include which methods the company will take to monitor silica exposure and which cleaning techniques it will train employees to use. Workplaces must then designate an employee who is knowledgeable about the company’s ECP to monitor silica exposure. Next, routine monitoring of air samples for crystalline silica must be performed according to the guidelines created by OSHA. Additionally, use of safety equipment is required, such as respirator masks and ventilation systems meeting specific requirements set by OSHA. Lastly, employers must provide medical exams for employees who are required to wear respirators 30 or more days per year.
These new standards are in place for all construction workplaces, including electricians, plumbers, roofers, general contractors, and demolition companies. Beginning in June 2018, these standards will also apply to manufacturers and maritime businesses. Cooperation between OSHA and employers who work in these industries will not only reduce the risk of lung disease in 2.2 million people who are exposed to silica in the workplace, but also reduce the number of silica-related deaths in America. As OSHA and workplaces have worked together to mitigate silica-related health risks, the number of silicosis deaths has dramatically decreased from 1,065 deaths per year in 1968 to 165 deaths per year in 2004. With effort and compliance, this number will continue to decline in the years to come.
Author: Dick Wagner National Sales Coach and Consultant