OSHA Issues Final Rule to Reduce Disease from Exposure to Silica Dust

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By Scott M. Press

In an effort to curb lung cancer, silicosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and kidney disease among workers exposed to crystalline silica, the United States Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) announced a final rule that strengthens protections for workers exposed to respirable silica dust. This rule provides two standards, one for construction and one for general industry/maritime. The standards take effect on June 23, 2016; however, employers subject to the construction standard have until June 23, 2017 to comply with the majority of the new requirements, and employers subject to the general industry/maritime standard have until June 23, 2018 to comply. 

The final rule also requires covered employers to develop a written exposure control plan. The employer must designate an individual who is capable of identifying crystalline silica hazards in the workplace and who possesses the authority to take corrective measures to address them to implement the written exposure control plan.

OSHA estimates that when the final rule becomes fully effective, it could save nearly 600 lives annually and prevent more than 900 new cases of silicosis each year. The new protections in the final rule aim to improve worker protection by:

  • Reducing the permissible exposure limit (“PEL”) for crystalline silica to 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air, averaged over an eight-hour shift, as well as an action level of 25 micrograms per cubic meter for some requirements. This is on the order of ten-fold more stringent than the current PEL;
  • Requiring employers to use engineering controls (such as water or ventilation) and work practices to limit worker exposure; providing respiratory protection when controls are not able to limit exposures to the permissible level; limiting access to high exposure areas; training workers; and providing medical exams to highly exposed workers;
  • Providing greater certainty and ease of compliance to construction employers – including many small employers – by including a table of specified compliance controls, without having to monitor exposures; and
  • Staggering compliance dates to ensure employers have sufficient time to meet the requirements, e.g., extra time for the hydraulic fracturing (fracking) industry to install new engineering controls and for all general industry employers to offer medical surveillance to employees exposed between the PEL and 50 micrograms per cubic meter and the action level of 25 micrograms per cubic meter.

While OSHA estimates that the final rule will provide net benefits of approximately $7.7 billion per year, the Construction Industry Safety Coalition (“CISC”) found that OSHA underestimated the costs of the new rule to the industry by approximately $4.5 billion per year.  The CISC estimated the costs of the new rule to the construction industry will be around $5 billion per year.

For more information, please see OSHA’s website.