Late in the summer of 2013, the federal agency responsible for instituting and enforcing standards that assure safe and healthful working conditions in the U.S. proposed rules to limit crystalline silica — tiny particles created during the sawing, grinding or drilling of common materials such as stone, concrete, brick and mortar.
Inhaling crystalline silica increases a person’s risk of developing silicosis, an irreversible respiratory disease, and other serious lung conditions that can be fatal. Silicosis generates scar tissue and fluid buildup deep inside the lungs, which diminishes the ability to breathe and raises susceptibility to infections like tuberculosis.
Challenging the status quo
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) first established permissible exposure limits (PELs) for crystalline silica in 1971, but the agency had not updated them despite mounting scientific evidence from numerous health organizations that identified respirable crystalline silica as a human carcinogen.
“OSHA’s current standards for protecting workers from silica exposure are dangerously out-of-date and do not adequately protect worker health,” said David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor and the head of OSHA, in a statement on Aug. 23, 2013. “The current standards are more than 40 years old, and they are based on research from the 1960s and even earlier.”
OSHA said its proposed rule would save nearly 700 lives every year and prevent 1,600 new cases of silicosis annually by further reducing exposure to silica dust and outlining provisions for employers to train and examine workers. Although business groups have questioned the feasibility of the proposal, many of them expect OSHA will issue a final rule in 2016 toward the end of the Obama administration.
“It’s not surprising that they haven’t issued a final rule of any sort yet,” said Bradford Hammock, a lawyer for Jackson Lewis P.C. in Washington, D.C., who has been working with construction trade associations to make sure their concerns are addressed.
“There have been some historically large records [that needed to be analyzed] in OSHA rule makings, but this one is up there given the breadth of issues that were raised by the proposal,” he added.
Reviewing the new standard
The current PELs for crystalline silica allow construction workers to be exposed to risks more than twice as high as employees in general industry. OSHA’s proposed rule would cut exposure levels for the construction industry down 80 percent, from 250 micrograms per cubic meter of air to 50 micrograms, the same proportion the agency recommends for general industry and maritime.
The construction standard also would require that employers measure the amount of silica in the workplace and restrict access to areas where workers could be subjected to elevated levels. Dust controls such as a water hose or a vacuum must be used to protect employees from exposures above the PEL, and employers would be compelled to provide respirators to workers if these methods cannot limit exposures to the PEL.
“Today, many employers across the country apply common sense, inexpensive and effective control measures that protect workers’ lives and lungs — like keeping the material wet so dust doesn’t become airborne, or using a vacuum to collect dust at the point where it is created before workers can inhale it,” Michaels said on Aug. 23, 2013. “Tools that include these controls are readily available, and the rule is designed to give employers flexibility in selecting ways to meet the new standard.”
OSHA says construction employers could choose to measure the silica exposure in their workplaces and independently decide which dust controls work best, or they could use a control method laid out in the proposed standard depending on their specific operation. But many contractors doubt whether OSHA can assemble a list comprehensive enough to cover all typical construction activities.
“It will be very difficult due to the fact that they will need to catalog numerous work activities that are applicable to residential construction [as opposed to commercial construction],” said Mark Paskell, founder and president of The Contractor Coaching Partnership, a business training and education service for residential contractors.
Evaluating the potential impact
The agency estimates its proposed rule will cost about $1,242 each year for the average workplace covered by the regulation, and $550 for firms with fewer than 20 employees; however, OSHA projects the total benefits of the new rules to fall between $2.8 billion and $4.7 billion annually over the next 60 years. Not all construction segments, though, buy into that economic assessment.
“The agency lumps single-family and multifamily builders together with remodelers, thereby ignoring special issues that arise in remodeling,” said Robert Matuga, assistant vice president of labor, safety and health policy for the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB). “[Remodeling] work often involves removing or altering materials with unknown silica content, and crews moving from site to site to cover a number of small projects during the course of the year.”
Many businesses, furthermore, have questioned the need for new rules in light of a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that shows silicosis deaths dropped from 164 in 2001 (0.74 per 1 million population) to 101 in 2010 (0.39). Some employers think more rigorous enforcement of current standards would be sufficient.
“There is currently a permissible exposure limit, so presumably folks are already doing quite a bit to make sure that the dust is controlled at their work sites,” Hammock said.
The proposed rule would require construction businesses to offer medical testing every three years, including chest X-rays and lung function tests, for workers subject to PELs 30 days or more a year. OSHA also would expect employers to keep records of workers’ exposure to silica as well as their medical exams.
Taking the proper initiative
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends the following measures to reduce exposures to crystalline silica in the workplace and to prevent silicosis and deaths in construction workers:
• Recognize when silica dust may be generated and plan ahead to eliminate or control the dust at the source. Awareness and planning are keys to the prevention of silicosis.
• Do not use silica sand or other substances containing more than 1 percent crystalline silica as abrasive blasting materials. Substitute less hazardous materials.
• Use engineering controls and containment methods such as blast-cleaning machines and cabinets, wet drilling, or wet sawing of silica-containing materials to control the hazard and protect adjacent workers from exposure.
• Routinely maintain dust control systems to keep them in good working order.
• Practice good personal hygiene to avoid unnecessary exposure to other work site contaminants such as lead.
• Wear disposable or washable protective clothes at the work site.
• Shower (if possible) and change into clean clothes before leaving the work site to prevent contamination of cars, homes and other work areas.
• Conduct air monitoring to measure worker exposures and ensure that controls are providing adequate protection for workers.
• Use adequate respiratory protection when source controls cannot keep silica exposures below the PEL.
• Provide periodic medical examinations for all workers who may be exposed to respirable crystalline silica.
• Post warning signs to mark the boundaries of work areas contaminated with respirable crystalline silica.
• Provide workers with training that includes information about health effects and work practices.
• Report all cases of silicosis to state health departments and OSHA.
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