The Importance of OSHA’s New Standard: Saving Lives & Improving the Work Environment

Silica Dust Control

With OSHA’s new ruling on workplace silica exposure, a great deal will be changing for foundries and their employees. While there have been complaints and confusion over new cleaning procedures and preventative measures, the updated standard further protects foundry employees from severe illnesses that can be caused by exposure to silica dust. Some of these illnesses include silicosis, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and kidney disease.

Silicosis frequently manifests in employees who have inhaled respirable crystalline silica. It is a progressive, disabling, and often deadly lung disease that can lead to bronchitis, tuberculosis, and scleroderma – a disease that affects the skin, blood vessels, joints and muscles. Symptoms of silicosis include shortness of breath, chest pain, fatigue, and if an employee goes untreated or is continually exposed, can inevitably lead to respiratory failure and death. 

In foundries, silica dust can be created by several types of operations. Often times, it is produced by casting sand or metal, fettlings and kiln linings which contain silica, and can turn to respirable crystalline silica when dry. According to estimates made by OSHA, roughly 35,000 foundry employees are exposed to respirable crystalline silica, and nearly 12,200 of them are over the new permissible exposure limits (PEL). Across all industries, OSHA estimates that over 2.3 million men and women face exposure to respirable crystalline silica in their workplaces. Under these new regulations, it is projected that over 600 lives will be saved per year. Just as well, it will prevent over 900 new cases of silicosis annually.

This new ruling was originally proposed in 2013, but implementation was delayed as many industries sought for more information and wanted to contribute their input on the regulatory process. Prior to OSHA’s new standard on silica dust, which was approved in June of 2016, the former standard had not been updated since 1971. Silica dust exposure limits were found to be outdated and inadequately protected the health of employees. It became evident that the standard needed to be updated as increasing numbers of employees were losing their ability to work and breathe every year.

Under OSHA’s final rule, over an eight-hour shift the permissible exposure limit for crystalline silica will be reduced to 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air, and the action level will be reduced to 25 micrograms per cubic meter of air. By June of 2018, OSHA requires all foundry employers to:

  • Limit employee access to areas that have silica dust over the PEL
  • Utilize dust controls to limit employees from silica dust exposure over the PEL; provide respirators to employees when dust controls cannot limit exposures to the PEL
  • When practical alternatives are available, restrict cleaning practices that expose workers to silica dust
  • Create and implement a written exposure control plan that identifies tasks that involve silica exposure, and methods that can be used before, or during, these tasks that protect employee
  • Offer medical exams every three years to all employees who are exposed at, or above the action level for longer than 30+ days per year; these exams include x-rays and lung function tests
  • Train employees on work operations that result in silica exposure and what they can do to limit exposure
  • Keep detailed records of employee’s silica exposure and medical exams

When asked about the new OSHA standard on silica dust exposure in the workplace, U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez stated: “This rule will save lives. It will enable workers to earn a living without sacrificing their health, and finally gives employees the kind of protection they deserve.”