Why every GC should be concerned with the new OSHA silica regulations

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On June 23rd of 2018, OSHA began enforcement of tougher standards on human exposure to crystalline silica (also called Silicon Dioxide, SiO2). The new OSHA standard requires employers to fulfill a long list of additional requirements if using any material that contains the dangerous "respirable" silica particles, known to cause lung cancer, silicosis, and other potentially debilitating respiratory diseases. OSHA estimates over 2.3 million workers are exposed to silica when they are at work. And with OSHA enforcement and citations on the rise, anyone in charge of worker safety should be paying attention.

What is it?

Crystalline silica is a common mineral that is found in materials such as stone, artificial stone, sand, marble, and most commonly - quartz. When workers cut, grind, or drill materials that contain crystalline silica, or use industrial sand, they can be exposed to very small silica dust particles. These tiny particles (known as “respirable” particles) can travel deep into workers’ lungs and cause silicosis, an incurable and sometimes deadly lung disease. Respirable crystalline silica also causes lung cancer, other potentially debilitating respiratory diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and kidney disease.

How are construction workers exposed?

Workers can be exposed if they are cutting, grinding, or sanding any product that contains silica. This can also affect any workers from nearby trades who pass are in the same general space as where the silica-infused material is being handled. 

What does the new standard require?

The new permissible exposure limit (PEL) is 50 µg/m3, and an action level (AL) of 25 µg/m3 - reduced from 250 µg/m3. To be compliant, employers will have to verify with the OSHA website here. Fines for non-compliance can start at $12,000 and quickly escalate. Enforcement has begun. Taken directly from the OSHA fact-sheet (links below), the new standard (29 CFR 1910.1053) requires employers to:

  1. Determine the amount of silica that workers are exposed to if it is, or may reasonably be expected to be, at or above the action level of 25 μg/m3 (micrograms of silica per cubic meter of air), averaged over an 8-hour day.
  2. Protect workers from respirable crystalline silica exposures above the permissible exposure limit (PEL) of 50 μg/m3 , averaged over an 8-hour day.
  3. Limit access to areas where workers could be exposed above the PEL.
  4. Use dust controls and safer work methods to protect workers from silica exposures above the PEL.
  5. Provide respirators to workers when dust controls and safer work methods cannot limit exposures to the PEL.
  6. Establish and implement a written exposure control plan that identifies tasks that involve exposure and methods used to protect workers.
  7. Restrict housekeeping practices that expose workers to silica, such as use of compressed air without a ventilation system to capture the dust and dry sweeping, where effective, safe alternatives are available.
  8. Offer medical exams—including chest X-rays and lung function tests—every three years to workers exposed at or above the action level for 30 or more days per year.
  9. Train workers on the health effects of silica exposure, workplace tasks that can expose them to silica, and ways to limit exposure.
  10. Keep records of workers’ silica exposure and medical exams.

Examples - Acoustical Plaster

Acoustical plaster ceiling systems are field installed and labor intensive. The process involves adhesion, troweling, sanding, and cutting, among other field labor. The process of sanding and cutting certain types of acoustical plaster systems can release crystalline silica into the air, exposing any worker who is in the same general area as the work being done. Installers of the acoustical plaster system itself are particularly at risk. 

All manufacturers are required to provide a material safety data sheet (MSDS) or health product declaration (HPD) stating the hazardous materials being used. Based on information obtained from public sources, two of the three major acoustical plaster manufacturers in the USA contain crystalline silica, or SIO2, in their products. View this performance based comparison of acoustical plaster manufacturers to see how each product stacks up.

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