Since September 23, employers in the construction industry are expected to be in full compliance with OSHA’s final rule regarding silica exposure. The regulatory body estimates that approximately 2.3 million people in the U.S. are exposed to this hazardous substance at work, and the new standard will protect these workers from potentially fatal illnesses.

What Is Silica and Who Is at Risk?

Crystalline silica is a mineral found in abundance in the Earth’s crust. Its most common form is quartz, an important industrial material often used in sand, stone, rock, concrete, brick, block, and mortar. Workplace exposure to silica occurs most often when workers are cutting, sawing, drilling, and crushing products made of concrete, brick, ceramic tiles, rock, and stone.

OSHA estimates that nearly 90 percent of workers exposed to silica are employed in the construction industry. The most severe exposures occur during abrasive blasting with sand to remove paint and rust from various structures. Exposure may also occur during a number of other activities:

  • Jack hammering
  • Rock/well drilling
  • Concrete mixing
  • Concrete drilling
  • Brick/concrete block cutting and sawing
  • Tuckpointing
  • Tunneling operations

While the hazard is prevalent in construction, workers in a wide range of industries and operations are also at risk. Some of the most common include:

  • Glass and pottery products
  • Structural clay products
  • Concrete products and ready-mix concrete
  • Foundries
  • Dental laboratories
  • Paintings and coatings
  • Jewelry production
  • Refractory products, installation, and repair
  • Cut stone and stone products
  • Railroad track maintenance
  • Hydraulic fracturing for gas and oil
  • Abrasive blasting in construction, maritime work, and general industry

Silica Exposure Hazards

Silica dust is hazardous to workers who inhale small (respirable) particles. These dust particles penetrate deep into the lungs, causing disabling and sometimes fatal illnesses.

Each year, OSHA sees fatalities and disabling illnesses in workers exposed to silica dust, particularly sandblasters and rockdrillers. Not only has silica been classified as a lung carcinogen, but it can also result in silicosis. This incurable disease occurs when respirable silica dust enters the lungs and causes scar tissue to form, severely impeding the lungs' ability to take in oxygen. Not only does this make breathing more difficult, but it also makes the sufferers more susceptible to lung infections like tuberculosis.

There are three types of silicosis: chronic, accelerated, and acute. Here’s what you need to know about each:

Chronic Silicosis

  • Most common type of silicosis
  • Occurs after 15 to 20 years of low to moderate crystalline silica exposure
  • Symptoms may not be obvious, and a chest x-ray is required to diagnose lung damage
  • Early symptoms include shortness of breath while exercising
  • Later symptoms include fatigue, extreme shortness of breath, chest pain, and respiratory failure

Accelerated Silicosis

  • Occurs after 5 to 10 years of high exposure
  • Onset of symptoms takes longer than in acute silicosis
  • Symptoms include severe shortness of breath, weakness, and weight loss

Acute silicosis

  • Occurs anywhere from 2 months to 2 years after exposure to extremely high concentrations of silica
  • Symptoms include severe and disabling shortness of breath, weakness, and weight loss
  • Often fatal

New Protections for Workers

OSHA’s permissible exposure limits for silica haven’t been updated since 1971. They are inconsistent, difficult to understand, and there is strong evidence to suggest they don't adequately protect worker health.

The new standard addresses these shortcomings and makes worker safety a priority. OSHA estimates that the update will save the lives of more than 600 workers annually and prevent over 900 cases of silicosis each year. That’s a pretty big deal.

So what does this new standard entail?

  • Worker exposure limited to 50 micrograms of respirable crystalline silica per cubic meter of air, averaged over an 8-hour shift
  • Consistent exposure limit across all industries covered by the rule
  • Limited worker access to areas where silica exposures are high
  • Effective methods for reducing exposures, including engineering controls (water or ventilation) and respirators
  • Medical exams for workers with high exposures
  • Comprehensive training for workers about silica-related hazards and how to reduce exposure

Employers must develop a written exposure control plan that identifies exposure hazards and lays out methods to protect workers. Where possible, employers are also expected to find alternatives to silica exposure by altering practices.

In addition to creating a safer, healthier environment for employees, employers will be pleased to know that compliance with the standard won’t cost an arm and a leg. In fact, it’s expected to cost the average workplace covered by the rule just $1,242 annually. For firms with fewer than 20 employees, the number drops to about $550.

Support for Employers

In an effort to help employers (particularly small businesses), OSHA will enact staggered compliance dates ranging from one to five years to ensure firms are given enough time to meet the requirements.

Given the prevalence of silica in construction, the industry will benefit from special flexibility. OSHA has given clear directives on how to best protect workers engaged in the most common construction tasks. Employers who follow these specifications can rest assured that they are fully compliant and that their workers are being provided with the required degree of protection.

Conclusion

The data is clear: crystalline silica exposure is a severe health hazard that affects millions of employees every year. With the introduction of this new standard, OSHA is recognizing the risks and taking much-needed action to protect the respiratory health of workers in the construction industry and beyond.

Compliance with the silica standard isn’t just about protecting your business from fines; it’s about creating a healthy working environment for your most valuable assets – your workers.