Weekly Compliance Digest – Crystalline Silica Proposed Rule
In this edition of the Weekly Compliance Digest, the first of 2016, we take a look at OSHA’s proposed rule on crystalline silica exposure, which was sent by the Agency to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for review on December 21, 2015.
Occupational Exposure to Respirable Crystalline Silica (78 FR 56273)
What is it?
Respirable crystalline silica is a dust created almost any time a worker cuts, saws, grinds, or drills stone, rock, concrete, brick, block or mortar. Crystalline silica particles are about 100 times smaller than ordinary beach sand, and are common in construction work, as well as brick, concrete and pottery manufacturing operations, and during operations using industrial sand products, such as in foundries, sand blasting and fracking operations. Crystalline silica becomes dangerous when it is respirable. It has been linked to many diseases (e.g. silicosis, lung cancer, kidney disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), emphysema).
OSHA has been trying for years to issue a final rule on crystalline silica exposure, because it considers that current standards don’t offer enough protection for workers. The current permissible exposure limits (PEL) for silica were established in 1971. Studies conducted since then show that workers can still get sick or die when exposed to silica at the permissible levels, OSHA says. The agency wants to set new rules that lower the amount of silica to which workers can be exposed, and wants the new limits to be part of a plan to control silica dust before workers are exposed to it.
A proposed rule was published in the Federal Register on September 12, 2013. The comment period was extended, and 14 days of public hearings were held from March 18 to April 4, 2014. Following the hearings, the public was given 60 extra days to submit evidence and 136 more days to submit final comments.
Who is affected?
OSHA says that approximately 2.2 million workers are exposed to respirable crystalline silica in their workplaces:
- The vast majority of workers, about 1.85 million, are in the construction industry.
- Approximately 320,000 workers are exposed in:
- General industry operations such as brick, concrete, and pottery manufacturing.
- Operations using sand products, such as foundry work and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) of oil and gas wells.
- Workers are also exposed during sandblasting in general industry and maritime workplaces.
What are the requirements?
The proposed rule includes the following provisions:
- Exposure limited to a new PEL of 50 micrograms of respirable crystalline silica per cubic meter of air (μg/m3), averaged over an 8-hour day. The new PEL would be the same in all industries covered by the rule. The current PEL, adopted in 1971, is 100 micrograms for general industry and 250 micrograms for construction and shipyards.
- Measurements of the amounts of silica that workers are exposed to. At 25 µg/m3, employers would be required to monitor exposure.
- Limits on worker access to areas where silica exposures are high.
- Use of effective methods for reducing exposures. If dust controls don’t keep exposure levels below the PEL, employers would have to provide respirators to workers.
- Providing medical exams to workers with high silica exposures.
- Training for workers about silica-related hazards and how to limit exposure.
According to OSHA, lowering silica exposure can generally be accomplished by using common dust control methods, such as wetting down work operations to keep silica-containing dust from getting into the air, enclosing an operation (“process isolation”), or using a vacuum to collect dust at the point where it is created before workers can inhale it.
What is next?
Lowering the PEL of respirable crystalline silica has been a challenge because industry, especially the construction sector, has been raising concerns about the costs of compliance. For example, they say that measuring silica at the 50 µg/m3 level would be difficult. Many industry associations argue that the current PEL should be maintained and strengthened instead of being lowered, although health advocates support the proposed rule.
The proposed rule was sent to the OMB. OMB reviews are limited to 90 days, but they can be extended. Before the proposed rule was published in the Federal Register in September 2013, it had been under review for almost 2.5 years. However, in its most recent regulatory agenda, OSHA indicated plans to publish the final silica rule in February 2016. Note that dates provided in the regulatory agenda are objectives that have been missed in the past, not firm deadlines.
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