What to know about OSHA’s respirable crystalline silica final rule


In March of 2016, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) published the final rule “Occupational Exposure to Respirable Crystalline Silica.” The new rule lowers the permissible exposure limit of respirable crystalline silica and adds requirements for employers to monitor the health and safety of exposed employees.

The rule marks the agency’s first updated silica regulation since 1971. This article provides an overview of the rule’s requirements and OSHA's timeline for enforcing this rulemaking.

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What is crystalline silica?

A known carcinogen of the lungs, crystalline silica is a common component of many building materials, including soil, sand, granite, and concrete.

Workers can inhale tiny, respirable particles of crystalline silica while performing activities such as abrasive blasting with sand; sawing brick or concrete; sanding or drilling into concrete walls; grinding mortar; manufacturing brick, concrete, stone, or ceramic products; and cutting or crushing stone.

During these tasks, silica particles at least 100 times smaller than ordinary sand can enter workers’ lungs and lead to the formation of scar tissue, or even silicosis—an incurable respiratory disease which in severe cases can be disabling or even fatal. Exposure to crystalline silica dust can also result in increased risks of lung cancer, kidney disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

OSHA estimates that approximately 2 million U.S. workers are exposed to crystalline silica at work.

In order to better tailor requirements to specific work environments, OSHA has issued two separate standards as part of the final rule—one for general industry and maritime, and the other for the construction industry.

Both standards include industry-specific requirements and controls that employers can follow to ensure compliance.

What prompted this new silica rulemaking?

OSHA’s previous exposure limits for silica were more than 40 years old. For decades, scientific evidence has shown that the former exposure limits did not adequately protect workers from the adverse health risks associated with respirable crystalline silica.

OSHA had been working on amending its silica rulemaking since at least 2003 and has developed this final rule based on an extensive review of peer-reviewed scientific evidence and current industry consensus standards.

The agency estimates that the new rule will save more than 600 lives and prevent more than 900 cases of silicosis each year.

How will the final rule impact my organization?

This final rule requires covered employers to assess employee exposures to silica if it may be at or above an action level of 25 micrograms of silica per cubic meter of air averaged over an 8-hour workday.

In addition, the rule has lowered the permissible exposure limit (PEL) for respirable crystalline silica to 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air averaged during an 8-hour workday. This PEL is now consistent with the limit recommended by the National Institute for Occupational Illness and Health (NIOSH) in 1974.

Under the new rule, employers are also required to limit access to high exposure areas, develop written control plans, and provide workers with respiratory protection when controls cannot adequately limit exposures to the action level. In addition, employers must also offer medical exams every three years to workers who are required to wear respirators. Records of medical exams and exposure measurements must also be kept and maintained.

Finally, employers must provide safety training to educate workers on the types of activities that result in silica exposure, and the ways in which it can be limited.

Rear View of Young Office Workers in Casual Outfits Listening to a Top Manager Explaining Something Using Illustrations.

What training should employees receive on crystalline silica?

OSHA’s training requirements under the new rule are performance-based. This means that during an OSHA investigation, employees should be able to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of the following topics:

  • Health hazards associated with exposure to crystalline silica
  • Workplace tasks that can result in an exposure
  • Steps their employer has taken to protect employees from exposure, including controls, work practices, and the use of respiratory equipment
  • Sections of the rule that are immediately pertinent to either the maritime and genera industry, or to the construction industry
  • The purpose of the medical surveillance program

Workers in the construction industry must also be able to identify the competent person designated by their employer to implement their organization’s written control plan.

OSHA expects that on average, a full hour of training will be needed for all covered workers. While the final rule does not require employers to maintain records of employee training, organizations may still decide to implement systems to track training in order to confirm that all workers have been properly trained.

What employers are exempt from complying with the rule?

Employers who have established that the silica in their workplaces stays beneath certain levels are exempt from the new silica rule. For example, the rule does not apply to employers in the general, maritime, or construction industries that have objective data demonstrating that workers’ exposure to respirable crystalline silica will remain below 25 micrograms per cubic meter averaged during an employee’s 8-hour workday.

However, according to OSHA, if low exposure levels are achieved through controls, then the exemption does not apply.

When did the rule take effect?

Both standards contained in the final rule took effect on June 23, 2016.

Enforcement for the construction industry’s standard began on September 23, 2017, after a three-month delay. OSHA granted employers acting in good faith an additional 30 days to implement the standard’s requirements.

Enforcement for the general industry and maritime standard began on June 23, 2018. In similarity to the construction industry enforcement, OSHA stated in a recent memorandum that the agency will assist employers "making good faith efforts" to meet the standard's requirements within the first 30 days of enforcement. The memo goes on to clarify any citations proposed during this period for non-compliance with the new standard will be reviewed by its National Office before being officially issued.

Additionally, in a special case, hydraulic fracturing (fracking) operations in the oil and gas industry will have until June 23, 2021 to implement controls to limit exposures to the new PEL. From June 23, 2018, to June 23, 2021, hydraulic fracturing employers can continue to have employees use respirators when exposures exceed the PEL. This extension was granted because controls for exposure in hydraulic fracturing are still under development, partly due to emerging technologies.

What does the future hold?

While a number of labor and industry groups have praised the new rule, critics have expressed concerns that it will be costly for organizations to implement. Some industry groups have also argued that the rule does not go far enough in protecting workers from exposure, and have advocated for a PEL of 25 micrograms per cubic meter of air or lower.

On April 11, 2016, OSHA notified the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation that seven petitions requesting a review of the final rule were filed in six courts of appeals. These petitions were consolidated into a single lawsuit, which was rejected entirely by The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit at the end of January 2018.

Starting June 23, 2020, medical surveillance must be offered to employees who will be exposed at or above the action level for 30 or more days a year. It should be noted this is different than the medical surveillance that must be offered to employees exposed above the PEL for 30 or more days, which is already required.

With enforcement now underway, it is important to remember that the first step towards compliance with regulations is training. Proper training is an excellent way to ensure employees know best practices that keep them safe, and organizations are even required to provide silica safety training as part of the new standard. Luckily, online training courses offer a comprehensive up-to-date solution that minimizes the stress of complying with new regulations.

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