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OSHA Completes Long-awaited Silica Exposure Protections

Posted on 3/28/2016 by Roger Marks

“When this is issued, it will have a bigger impact than any regulation that OSHA has issued in the last 20 years in terms of saving lives and preventing illnesses.”

—OSHA Chief David Michaels

The US Office of Management and Budget has approved a long-awaited OSHA safety regulation to control worker exposure to crystalline silica.

What Is Crystalline Silica?

Silica is a naturally occurring mineral that makes up about 12% of the earth’s crust, most often in the form of quartz. When quartz and other silica-containing rocks are ground into dust, the crystalline particles can be inhaled and, over time, cause severe health problems like chronic silicosis and lung cancer. 

Silica is a danger to workers in general industry, construction, and maritime jobs.

Key Provisions in the OSHA Silica Rulemaking

To protect employees from the hazards of silica exposure, OSHA’s rulemaking lowers the permissible exposure limit (PEL) for respirable crystalline silica to 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air, averaged over an 8-hour shift. 

In addition, the new rule requires employers to use engineering controls like water or ventilation to limit work exposure and to provide respirators when engineering controls are not adequate to limit exposure below the new PEL.

Further, employers must:
  • Limit worker access to high-exposure areas,
  • Develop a written exposure control plan,
  • Offer medical exams and information to highly exposed workers, and
  • Train workers on risks of silica inhalation and how to limit exposure.
New OSHA rules for silica exposure

How “Long Awaited” Was This Silica Rulemaking?
  • The current iteration of this rule was proposed in September 2013.
  • OSHA’s intention to create a silica rule has been outlined in the Agency’s “Unified Agenda” since at least 1997.
  • Here’s a Department of Labor video about the dangers of Silicosis released in 1938: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pHwvKKQ5WtI
  • The video above was created after a 1935 congressional subcommittee determined that as many as 700 workers on a Union Carbide project, Hawks Nest Tunnel in Charlottesville, VA, had died due to silicosis.
  • Many sources also say that the hazards of breathing silica dust have been known since the days of ancient Greece.
Compliance Deadlines for OSHA’s Silica Rule

The Final Rule will take effect on June 23, 2016. Construction industry employers must be in compliance with the new standard by June 23, 2017. 

General industry and maritime workplaces must be in compliance with the new worker exposure rules for crystalline silica by June 23, 2018.

For hydraulic fracturing operations, all provisions of the new silica rule become effective June 23, 2018, except the engineering controls requirements, which have a deadline for compliance of June 23, 2021.

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