On Thursday, March 24, the revised federal rule for silica exposure limits was finalized by the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA). The new rule sets a dramatically stricter maximum limit on the amount of crystalline silica for workers in the U.S. Silica is known to cause several medical conditions, such as silicosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and lung cancer. The response from industry organizations and businesses has been diverse, ranging from praise to concern.
Key Provisions of the Silica Rule
The new silica rule sets two separate but similar standards for the construction industry and the maritime and general industries, and it includes four primary provisions aimed at stone and glass fabricators and manufacturers and other workplaces where crystalline silica is present.
- The current permissible exposure limit (PEL) over an eight-hour period has been reduced to 50 micrograms per cubic meter from the current PEL of 250 micrograms per cubic meter.
- Employers are mandated to limit their employees’ exposure to silica by implementing engineering controls and providing personal protective equipment (PPE), namely respirators. Employees must also develop a written plan for controlling exposure to silica and provide training for employees on the hazards of silica exposure and how exposure can be limited.
- Employers are required to offer medical examinations to workers who are highly exposed to silica, and provide them with medical information on lung conditions and health.
- OSHA has some flexibility in helping some employers comply with the new PEL in order to protect workers and preserve small businesses.
The rule officially goes into effect on June 23, 2016, but various industries have some time before enforcement begins:
- Construction – June 23, 2017
- Maritime and General Industry – June 23, 2018
- Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) – June 23, 2021, for engineering controls; June 23, 2018, for all other provisions
Why the New Rule?
According to OSHA, about 2.3 million workers are currently being exposed to respirable crystalline silica while on the job, and over time, exposure to silica has been found to compromise human health. This hazard was first recognized by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) in the 1930s, and exposure limits were set in 1971. OSHA contends that new studies over the past 40 years have proven that the current PEL is outdated and may still present a health risk to workers.
“We’ve known for over 40 years that it needed to be strengthened, and it has taken 40 years to strengthen it,” said Secretary of Labor Tom Perez. “Many people who are going to work right now and breathing unacceptable levels of silica dust are in for a brighter future.”
David Michaels, head of OSHA, expanded on Perez’s statement. “We’re estimating that once it’s fully in effect, it will save about 600 lives a year,” said Michaels. “The rule is also expected to prevent more than 900 cases of silicosis each year.”
Industry Expresses Concern
Industry organizations have issued a mixed response to the final silicosis rule. The Construction Industry Safety Coalition (CISC), a partnership of 25 related trade associations, has opposed the new rule from the beginning, and most of the individual trade associations have announced they are skeptical of the wisdom and feasibility of the rule and are withholding final responses until it has been thoroughly reviewed.
“NAHB has long advocated the importance of the rule being both technologically and economically feasible,” said Ed Brady, chair of the National Association of Home Builders. “While we’re still reviewing the final rule, we’re concerned that it may not adequately address these issues and take into consideration real-world application.”
Many industry leaders believe that worker health could’ve been more effectively addressed by increasing enforcement activity. “OSHA’s own inspectors, when they conduct inspections, have been finding, year after year, that in more than 30 percent of the cases, the existing permissible exposure limit is exceeded,” said Neil King, counsel for the American Chemistry Council’s Crystalline Silica Panel.
King went on to state that if businesses complied with existing limits, “the number of silicosis cases, which has already fallen by 90 percent, would basically fall to zero or something very close to zero.”
Trade Unions Show Support
Most of the support for the new rule comes from small craftspeople and boutique businesses focused on sustainability, environmental health and human health, and they have been joined by most of the major trade unions, including the North American Building Trades Union (NABTU) and the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO).
“North America’s Building Trades Union is pleased OSHA has issued the final silica standard,” reads the official NABTU response. “Put simply, the OSHA silica standard will protect construction workers from getting sick or dying due to silica dust exposure.”
“We applaud the Obama administration for issuing these lifesaving measures and commend Secretary of Labor Tom Perez and OSHA Assistant Secretary David Michaels for their tremendous leadership and dedication to bring the silica rules to completion,” states the AFL-CIO. “The labor movement has fought for these standards for decades. We will continue to fight to defend these rules from the certain industry attacks that will come, so that workers are finally protected from this deadly dust.”