OSHA’s New Silica Rule is Kicking Up Dust

Updated 6/27/2016OSHA released the new 1,776 page “Occupational Exposure to Respirable Crystalline Silica” final ruling on March 25th. The rule had not been updated since 1971, and the new silica rule drastically reduces the permissible exposure limits, and introduces requirements for exposure assessment, methods for controlling exposure- such as restricted work areas, worker training, respiratory protection, medical surveillance, hazard communication and recordkeeping.Two standards are established in the new rule, one for general industry and maritime and the other for construction. For all covered industries, the new permissible exposure limit is 50 micrograms of respirable crystalline silica per cubic meter of air over an 8-hour time-weighted average. OSHA considered lowering the PEL further, but decided against it due to limitations on technological feasibility, not because they had determined significant risk was eliminated at the new PEL.Deadlines to comply with the new requirements vary based on industry. The construction industry has until June 23, 2017 to comply, and general industry and maritime have until June 23, 2018. The hydraulic fracturing industry has the longest to comply; they have until June 23, 2018 for all provisions except engineering controls which have a compliance date of June 23, 2021.OSHA officials, union representatives and public health groups called the new rule a “public health victory”.  Representatives from the Laborers’ International Union of North America(LiUNA), APHA Occupational Health and Safety Section, International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers, and President Obama are all supporters of the new rule, with the major focus on reducing silica-related illness and deaths.“More than 80 years ago, Labor Secretary Frances Perkins identified silica dust as a deadly hazard and called on employers to fully protect workers,” said U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez. “This rule will save lives. It will enable workers to earn a living without sacrificing their health. It builds upon decades of research and a lengthy stakeholder engagement process – including the consideration of thousands of public comments – to finally give workers the kind of protection they deserve and that Frances Perkins had hoped for them.”OSHA believes that the provisions put forth in this rule will prevent nearly 700 deaths and 1,600 new cases of silicosis per year once the rule becomes fully effective. In addition to the lower permissible exposure limits, employers will be responsible for measuring how much silica workers are exposed to, restricting access to work areas where silica exposures are high, implementing methods that reduce exposure, providing medical exams to workers with high silica exposures, and training for workers regarding silica-related hazards and how to limit their own exposure.However, these same provisions are what some business owners and industry organizations say are making compliance to the new silica rule costly and burdensome.“The new OSHA regulation is neither technologically nor economically feasible,” said Marc Freedman, executive director of Labor Policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “Compliance will be undermined by laboratories not being capable of measuring silica at the new specified levels and installing the control systems OSHA requires will cost hundreds of millions of dollars that most employers, and certainly small businesses, will not be able to afford.”Opponents to the new silica rule suggested that better enforcement of the existing regulations would be more effective in protecting workers from silica exposure than imposing stricter permissible exposure limits and ancillary provisions that impose greater regulatory burden on employers.“The current exposure limit sufficiently protects worker health when fully adhered to and enforced. There is no sound science to show that lowering it to the levels mandated by this rule would meaningfully improve worker protection, but it will add tremendous expense for employers and cost jobs,” said Pam Whitted, National Stone, Sand and Gravel Association senior vice president of government and regulatory affairs.When elimination, substitution and engineering controls are not feasible or adequate in protecting workers from silica dust exposure, respiratory protection can be an effective way to reduce worker exposure at a low cost.Respiratory Protection Awareness training is a relatively short course that can be coupled with respiratory fit testing and medical evaluation questionnaires (MEQs). The course is a great way to review respiratory hazards in the workplace, including silica dust exposure, types of respirators and cartridges, and the proper methods of inspecting, cleaning and storing respirators. MEQs and fit testing ensures that workers are able to use respirators while working, and fits them to the appropriate size to optimize protection.With the staggered effective dates for compliance, industry leaders and employers will have some time to review the lengthy new rule and fully understand its impact. During this time industry leaders and employers should create implementation plans for engineering controls and update health and safety plans to comply with the new silica rule, and provide training to employees on the changes.