Thursday | February 22, 2018

Understand OSHA’s New Standards for Silica Dust

When we cut, grind or drill into concrete and asphalt out on the job site, there’s a risk of exposure to respirable crystalline silica, also known as silica dust.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration estimates that 2 million construction workers in the United States have been exposed to this material, and in March of 2016, it released new standards for managing exposure to silica dust.

The new standards took effect in June of last year, but a memorandum delayed the standards’ enforcement in the construction industry until Sept. 23, 2017. Now is the time to start implementing a plan to make sure your safety procedure makes the grade.

The new standards reduce the permissible exposure limit, or PEL, of respirable crystalline silica to 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air, averaged over an 8-hour shift. The previous limits had been 250 micrograms per cubic meter of air, averaged over an 8-hour shift, for the construction industry.

The new standards require employers to write an exposure control plan, restrict housekeeping practices that expose workers to silica, offer medical exams every three years for employees wearing respirators more than 30 days in a year, train workers on silica exposures and best practices, and keep records of worker exposures and medical exams.

The new rule is expected to save more than 600 lives and prevent 900 new cases of silicosis each year. Here’s how you can play your part:

Take the First Step

For a list of common hazardous tasks in the construction industry, along with proper dust control methods, view Table 1 in OSHA’s new standards at

The table also gives employers information to limit worker exposure and provides suggestions of effective dust control measures based on worker time and task exposure, approved water control and ventilation methods, when a respirator is required and what the Minimum Assigned Protection Factor for that respirator should be.

Employers who follow Table 1 correctly will not be required to measure PEL, nor will they be subject to PEL requirements.

Train Workers on Silica Hazards and Best Practices

According to Wesley Wheeler’s silica webinar with the National Electrical Contractor’s Association, silica dust can cause silicosis, tuberculosis, lung cancer and renal disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and can aid in the degeneration of lung functions. So, it’s important that employees understand the risks and best practices to limit their exposure on and off the job site.

Restrict Exposure to Silica

Control measures include ventilation, vacuuming, wet cutting and more. When reviewing options to mitigate silica exposure, employers should also consider situational factors, such as weather, wind, humidity and indoor/outdoor use. For example, wet cutting may not be possible indoors or near electrical equipment.

Methods to restrict bystander access to any area where a respirator is required due to the excessive silica PEL include marking the area clearly, notifying employees during daily toolbox talks, and scheduling work in that area during times other workers are expected to be elsewhere. This, too, should be included in your written program.

It’s also important to note that respirators should not be worn by employees with beards. “To wear a respirator and comply with the provisions and protections, [the employee] must be clean shaven or wear a full face respiratory,” Wheeler said.

Medical Examinations and Record Keeping

Employees wearing a respirator for more than 30 days in a year will be required to undergo an initial medical exam and a periodic exam every three years, including a physical exam, chest X-ray, a pulmonary function test, Tb skin test and PLHCP test. Employers should monitor their exposure throughout the year and keep medical records on these employees.

However, this could be difficult based on the transient nature of many employees. Wheeler recommends asking at entrance interviews how many days that worker has worn a respirator so you’ll know how many days to monitor before they would be required to undergo medical surveillance.

According to Wheeler, OSHA requires employers to maintain medical records for each employee for 30 years, unless the employee is a temporary worker or they work for that employer for less than one year. In that case, the employer should provide the employee with his or her medical records at the time of termination or separation.

Write an Exposure Control Plan

The written program should include a description of tasks that might involve exposure to silica dust, an outline of engineering controls to be used, work practices and respiratory protection for workers, methods to restrict access to hazardous work areas, plans for medical surveillance and managing medical and work history and a list of housekeeping measures to limit employee exposure to silica dust.

It must also designate a “competent person” to implement this plan, which OSHA defines as someone who is capable of identifying existing and foreseeable respirable crystalline silica hazards in the workplace, has the authorization to take corrective measures, is willing to accept the role, and is designated and authorized by the company.

This plan should also be reviewed annually.

The U.S. Department of Labor first recognized the hazards of respirable crystalline silica in the 1930s, after the deaths of many workers during the construction of Hawk’s Nest Dam.

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