The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) silica rule revision is already several months in for the construction industry and is due to become fully enforced on June 23 for general and maritime industries. The oil and gas industry has until June 23, 2021, to comply. This standard cuts permissible exposure limits by half and controls how employees conduct work when it involves silica, outside as well as indoors. OSHA’s rule helps limit worker exposure to particles, or respirable crystalline silica dust, which can lead to serious lung damage and even death.
The known dangers of silica are not a recent discovery. In the 1930s Hawks Nest Tunnel disaster, at least 476 workers exposed to silica died from silicosis. Particles of sand, rock, and minerals release into the air during tasks such as cutting, grinding, or drilling, potentially exposing 2.3 million workers to silica, according to OSHA. An analysis of National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health data and statistics from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention show an average of 100 deaths from silicosis per year.
When OSHA began in 1970, the original rule included vague exposure protocols for silica. In 2016, the Dept. of Labor passed the revised standard to control how people work with silica. Since November 2017, OSHA says there have been at least 116 silica violations by the U.S. construction industry. Most recently, a business in New York was cited for exposing workers to silica and asbestos during renovation work on a storage facility.
“Employers must monitor the work area for the presence of these highly hazardous substances, and put in place effective controls to protect employees from exposure,” said Michael Scime, OSHA Buffalo Area Office Director, in response to the silica rule violation.
The effective controls the silica regulation requires:
- Employers must have an exposure control plan
- Employers must conduct an exposure assessment
- Employers must establish engineering and work practice controls
- Silica housekeeping must be continuous
- Keep record of air testing results and risk management procedures
- Regulate work areas and have proper PPE ready and use when necessary
- Communicate hazards
Dust Control Measures
Employers can take more effective steps to protect workers from exposure to respirable silica dust. The most common methods of limiting silica exposure is to use water or dust collection systems to mitigate airborne particles. When installing engineering controls to reduce silica concentration in the air, ensure workers understand work area operation rules and requirements by using signs and labels. Convey boundaries of silica work areas, cordon off restricted access areas, and reinforce visual aids with floor marking. Respirators are to be used to protect employees when other control methods do not limit silica dust exposure enough. Ensure PPE areas are clear and organized for specific tasks. Local fire departments can often assist in training workers on proper face coverings and breathing apparatus use. Using these tips and OSHA best practices, employers can not only protect the environment, but also the well-being of their workers and overall business.