Recognizing that silica – especially the inhalation of silica dust – poses a significant health risk to workers in a variety of industries, OSHA has drafted new regulations on silica safety. These rules are intended to replace outdated guidelines that have been on the books for decades and haven't kept pace with technological changes.
The new regulations go into effect on September 23rd for the construction industry, and the summer of 2018 for most other affected industries. Are you ready for these changes? We'll summarize the new regulations so you know how to best prepare.
Greater Urgency for the Construction Industry
Construction has an earlier implementation date for the simple reason that the vast majority of workers exposed to silica dust work in this industry. This is especially true for workers who do stone and concrete work, which produces large amounts of silica dust (learn about Reducing Silica Risks at the Construction Site).
Making construction sites safer with regards to silica inhalation could improve the safety up of up to 2 million workers (out of roughly 2.3 million workers exposed to the hazard nationwide).
Foundries and fracking are another area of concern. With the rapid expansion of fracking in recent years, we could see greater and greater levels of silica exposure going forward.
The Health Risks for Workers Exposed to Silica Dust
Inhaling silica dust can lead to a wide range of health problems, including:
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Lung cancer
- Kidney problems
Silicosis is a severe pulmonary disorder that causes scarring and inflammation in the lungs. These complications make it harder for the affected individual to breathe and engage in normal activities.
There is no long-term cure for silicosis. Increasingly, lung transplants are the go-to treatment for those who are severely affected by the disease. If that sounds like a drastic procedure, it's not without cause: silica exposure leads to more than 600 worker deaths each year, primarily from silicosis.
The Final Rule
Given the debilitating and costly effects of treating illnesses such as silicosis, coupled with new technology that makes it dramatically easier to remove silica dust from workplaces, OSHA teamed up with industry experts, regulators, academic scientists, and medical doctors to draft a set of regulations that have been dubbed The Final Rule.
The new regulations will mandate a new – and much lower – maximum threshold for silica dust exposure. In 1971, the permissible exposure limit (PEL) for silica was set at 100 micrograms per cubic meter of air. However, in light of the severe impact silica inhalation has on workers' lungs and kidneys, the new PEL will be 50 micrograms per cubic meter.
Perhaps the most important change to the regulations is that they take control measures seriously. Every company in the relevant industries will have to develop a comprehensive plan to deal with and reduce silica exposure. When possible, they will also need to use technology to reduce the level of crystalline silica in the worksite atmosphere (learn about Reducing Silica Exposure in Manufacturing).
Going hand-in-hand with the control measures, there are new regulations calling on employers to provide potentially affected workers with appropriate medical care. This will allow the potential silica damage to be addressed as quickly as possible, before the condition worsens.
Employers also need to provide workers education and information about silica risks. There is a significant information gap when it comes to silica – even among employees who work in the construction and fracking sectors. Unless they are fully informed, workers cannot make safe decisions about the way they approach their work.
Part of this information should be focused on the symptoms of silicosis and other common diseases so that workers can seek treatment while they are still in the early stages of the disease.
Adapting to the New Regulation
Even though these regulations are new and have only been under debate for the last five years, many companies have already taken proactive steps to reduce silica exposure in their workplaces. Some safety programs are already well ahead of the federal government's requirements.
Given the cost of implementing these programs, however, smaller companies often had to lag behind. They are the ones who now need to jump start their safety programs in order to catch up and stay compliant.
In light of these cost barriers, OSHA has balanced the interests of all involved by giving employers some flexibility while still protecting the health of their employees. Instead of prescribing strict rules on how to manage silica dust or mandating a particular type of equipment, their focus has been simply to reach the ambitious new goal of a PEL of 50 – no matter how it is achieved.
There is no universal approach here. Different companies will use different strategies to reach this goal. Some, for example, might use vacuum and ventilation system, while other workplaces might do better with high-powered water-based equipment (for advice, see Construction Dust: The Risk to Health and How to Create a Safer Working Environment). Regardless of the equipment used, employers and their workers will have to collaborate to ensure the work is carried out safely.
Updates to standards can make people a bit nervous. They can mean having to give up the old way of doing things, and the new ways might have a price tag attached to them. Hopefully, by summarizing the new silica regulations, this article will have put you at ease about the upcoming changes. Your employees deserve a workplace that won't put them at undue risk of long-term health problems. And, by complying with the new update, you will be able to give them one.