OSHA Announces New Silica Rules Permitted exposure levels will drop sharply, affecting many parts of the construction world. The Department of Labor has released long-awaited revisions to rules on worker exposure to silica dust, cutting permissible exposure for millions of workers and setting new requirements for employers. Allowable exposure to silica dust in the construction industry will drop from 250 micrograms per cubic meter to 50 micrograms, averaged over an eight-hour period — a reduction of 80%.
The final rule comes in two parts: one for the construction industry, which takes effect on June 23, 2017, and another for general and maritime industries, which kicks in the following year. In addition to limiting exposure to dust, employers will also be required to provide medical exams once every three years for some workers, and to keep records of instances in which workers are exposed to silica.
The revisions have been years in the making. Silica dust, which can scar lungs and cause diseases such as silicosis and cancer, is produced in a variety of ways in the construction industry — by workers cutting stone and masonry products, for example, and by those working in some manufacturing jobs that use sand. More than 2 million workers in the U.S. are exposed to silica dust, and Labor Secretary Tom Perez said that scientists have known for decades that rules established in the early 1970s were too lax. "We've known for over 40 years that it needed to be strengthened, and it has taken 40 years to strengthen it," Perez told NPR of the exposure limit. "Many people who are going to work right now and breathing unacceptable levels of silica dust are in for a brighter future."
OSHA says that most employers will be able to limit exposure to dust by using widely available equipment that uses water to prevent dust from becoming airborne or ventilation equipment to capture it. The agency also said that it made a number of revisions in the proposed regulation that lessened the burden on employers. The final rule requires employers to:
Provide engineering controls (such as ventilation or water) and adopt work practices to limit exposure
Provide respiratory protection when controls are not capable of limiting exposures to PEL.
Limit access to areas where exposure to dust is likely to be high.
Train workers and provide medical exams to workers who are exposed to high levels of dust.
OSHA added that "a table of specified controls" is included in the rule to make it easier for construction employers, especially small employers, to comply with the regulations without having to monitor exposures. This information is contained in what OSHA calls Table 1 in the final rule. For example, when the employee is using a stationary masonry saw with an integrated system that continuously feeds water to the blade (such as a wet saw for tile), no required respiratory protection is required.
The rule also spells out requirements for workers using handheld saws to cut fibercement board, walkbehind saws, and a variety of other tools and equipment. OSHA spokesman Brian Hawthorne said that the agency heard employers "loud and clear" when they said that they wanted an uncomplicated means of compliance, so OSHA compiled a list of common tasks and how workers should be protected. That list became Table 1.
Hawthorne also encouraged employers to contact their local OSHA offices, where they would find staffers "briefed and available" to help them be ready when the rule takes effect in June 2017.
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