In June of 2016, OSHA decided that its standard for silica dust exposure in the workplace was outdated and opted that a new, updated standard take its place. This updated standard affected numerous industries, construction being one of the first scheduled to meet the new compliance regulations. It has originally been decided that the entire construction industry was to meet the new compliance standard by June 23, 2017. After some deliberation, the U.S. Department of Labor felt that more guidance needed to be given to business leaders due to the uniqueness of the construction industries requirements. The date was pushed back to September 23, 2017 and allowed a 30-day grace period to follow where employers would not be fined for not meeting the newly defined requirements.
With this fresh standard now in effect, construction employees and employers alike should be concerned with doing all that they can to meet compliance. However, even with the compliance deadline having passed, construction employers still have questions and concerns. What is the new silica dust rule and why was it introduced? What exactly does this update mean for the construction industry?
Safety In the Construction Industry: OSHA’s updated Silica Dust Standard
Throughout the construction industry there are several types of materials that produce silica dust when they are cut, ground, chopped, or crushed. These materials include concrete, tile, stone, mortar, and drywall to name a few. Depending on the job, it is typically unlikely that another material containing less or no silica dust can be used to successfully complete a project. With that being said, construction workers and masons face the dangers of inhaling silica dust on a daily basis, in turn negatively affecting their overall health and well-being.
The previous OSHA standard defining the silica dust permissible exposure limits (PEL) as well as recommended dust prevention and control methods was based on research that was over 40 years old. Under the previous standard, the PEL was 100 µg/m3 (micrograms per cubic meter of air) averaged over an eight-hour workday. The new standard has cut this in half as the new PEL is 50 µg/m3. Upon conducting new research, OSHA found that the previously allowed exposure levels can lead to serious respiratory illnesses including lung cancer, bronchitis, and silicosis, an incurable lung disease.
Implementing this new standard was imperative for the reason that exposure to construction dust containing crystalline silica can occur during common construction tasks. Using masonry saws, drills, jackhammers, heavy duty demolition equipment, as well as a number of other tools can produce high levels of silica dust. In over 600,000 workplaces there are roughly two million construction employees that are exposed to crystalline silica; approximately 840,000 of whom are exposed to levels that are higher than the PEL. Based on the requirements of the new standard, OSHA estimates that their efforts will prevent over 900 cases of silicosis and 600 deaths every year.
How Construction Companies Can Meet New Regulatory Standards
During the grace period between September 23, 2017 and October 23, 2017, construction employers were required to make any and all attempts necessary to comply with the new rule. Any employers that were apprehensive about their ability to comply prior to the October 23 deadline were also required to contact OSHA to discuss the best course of action moving forward.
As this compliance date has passed, employers are now required to have taken the following steps to aid in the limitation of silica dust exposure:
- Established a written exposure control plan – The plan should identify tasks that involve dust exposure and provide detail on methods that that are currently in use to protect workers. This plan should have been implemented by an experienced, competent staff member and included the feedback of employees exposed to silica dust on a day-to-day basis.
- Defined proper housekeeping practices – For example, employees should be restricted from using compressed air to clean a worksite if it is not attached to a ventilation system that effectively capture dust. These housekeeping practices should be monitored by managers and supervisors to ensure they are being completed correctly.
- Offer medical examinations – These exams should be given every 3 years and include lung function tests and x-rays. Medical examinations should be offered to employees who are required to wear a respirator more than 30 days per year. Detailed records should be kept of each employees dust exposure and exam history.
- Employee training – Employees should have received a training from their supervisor or manager on the dangers of silica dust, as well as all prevention and control methods that can aid in reduction of dust production and exposure.
- Provide personal protective equipment (PPE) – In circumstances where work methods and dust collection controls cannot be implemented to limit dust exposure under the PEL, construction workers must be provided with respirators to allow for safe breathing. Respirators should be properly fit-tested to ensure no dust can enter the employees breathing zone, as well as cleaned and stored properly every day.