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The dangers of employees overexposed to respirable crystalline silica are well known, particularly in the construction industry. New requirements set for employers to prevent overexposure are extensive.

In March 2016, OSHA issued its long-anticipated final rule on respirable crystalline silica with two separate standards, one for the construction industry and the other for general industry plus maritime. The effective date was June 23, 2016; construction must be in full compliance by June 23, 2017, and general industry and maritime by June 23, 2018.

As the clock continues to tick down to June 23, 2017, now is the time for contractors to begin preparing and planning their compliance approach. Here is an overview of the new construction standard, as well as some points contractors should consider and potential hurdles they may need to overcome. Additional information is in the author’s white paper, Clearing the Air.

The requirements of the silica standard apply to all occupational exposures to airborne respirable crystalline silica in the construction industry, except where employee exposure would remain very low. (Please note that particles are deemed small enough to be inhaled using a sampling device.)

Fig 1 SilicaAll construction companies that have employees exposed to silica must fulfill these six duties.

  1. Have a written exposure control plan. Develop and implement a plan that, at a minimum, contains the required site-specific information.
  2. Oversee the plan. Designate a competent person to implement the written exposure control plan.
  3. Restrict housekeeping practices that increase silica exposure. For example, allow dry sweeping only in situations where it will not increase exposure and where wet sweeping, HEPA-filtered vacuuming and other methods that minimize the likelihood of exposure are not feasible.
  4. Offer medical surveillance. The employer must ensure that all medical examinations and procedures required by the silica standard are performed by a physician or other licensed health care professional (PLHCP) at no cost to the employee, and at a reasonable time and place, for any employee who will need to wear a respirator for 30 or more days per year.
  5. Communicate hazards and conduct employee training. Employers must include respirable crystalline silica as part of their existing Hazard Communication Program, as required elsewhere by OSHA. This means providing adequate employee access to labels on products containing crystalline silica and their corresponding Safety Data Sheets.
  6. Maintain proper recordkeeping. There are three separate sets of records that employers must keep: Air Monitoring Data, Objective Data (air monitoring data from elsewhere, but closely resembling the employer’s current operations) and Medical Surveillance records.

Exposure Control Methods

Contractors can choose from two options—fully comply with specific exposure control methods identified in Table 1 (see below for an excerpt) or implement alternative exposure control methods.

Option 1: Comply With Table 1
OSHA has published a list of common construction equipment and tasks that are known to generate large quantities of potentially hazardous silica (see Table 1). Some of the listed items include stationary masonry saws, handheld power saws, walk-behind saws, miscellaneous types of drills, jackhammers, grinders, milling/crushing machines and other heavy equipment.

To the right of each of the listed items in Table 1 are two columns. One column describes mandatory “Engineering and Work Practice Control Methods,” such as “Use saw equipped with integrated water delivery system that continuously feeds water to the blade.” Another phrase listed repeatedly throughout this column is “Operate and maintain tool in accordance with manufacturer’s instructions to minimize dust emissions.”

The column to the far right (which is divided into two sub-columns) pertains to “Required Respiratory Protection and Minimum Assigned Protection Factor (APF).” All respirators have APF classifications, or protection capabilities, assigned to them by OSHA. The larger the number, the greater level of protection expected. The listed item and how many hours per shift the employee(s) will be exposed dictate two things: whether respiratory protection is required and, if it is required, what level of respiratory protection is needed.

Table 1 Silica Exposure ControlSpecified Exposure Control Methods When Working With Materials Containing Crystalline Silica

Employers that choose to implement the control measures specified in Table 1 must do the following.

  • For tasks performed indoors or in enclosed areas, provide a means of exhaust as needed to minimize the accumulation of visible airborne dust.
  • For tasks performed using wet methods, apply water at flow rates sufficient to minimize the release of visible dust.
  • For measures implemented that include an enclosed cab or booth, ensure that the enclosed cab or booth meets the required specifications.
  • In cases where an employee performs more than one of the listed tasks in Table 1 during the course of a shift and the total duration of all tasks combined is more than four hours, the required respiratory protection for each task is the respiratory protection specified for more than four hours per shift. If the total duration of all Table 1 tasks performed is less than four hours, the required respiratory protection for each task is the respiratory protection specified for less than four hours per shift.
The option of complying with Table 1 may sound simple at first and seems to be the obvious choice. However, compliance with this option means a contractor must fully comply with all of the applicable items in the table as well as the supplemental notes above. Take, for example, the first Engineering and Work Practice Control listed in the excerpt above. It states that the employer must use a handheld saw that is “equipped with integrated water delivery system.” Maybe the contractor doesn’t own saws with that feature and would have to replace all handheld saws, which could prove rather costly.

Option 2: Alternative Exposure Control Methods
For employers that, for any reason, are unable to fully comply with the control methods or find that their specific tasks or equipment used are not listed in Table 1, an alternative path to compliance exists. The following items are mandatory if Table 1 control measures are not followed:

  • the employer shall ensure that no employee is exposed to an airborne concentration of respirable crystalline silica in excess of the PEL; and
  • the employer shall assess the exposure of each employee who is or may reasonably be expected to be exposed at or above the action level by utilizing either sampled air monitoring data or objective data.
Table 2 summarizes additional sampling results and employer actions.

Table 2 Silica MonitoringNote: Appendix A of the standard gives further guidance by specifying the procedures for analyzing air samples, as well as quality control procedures that laboratories must use.

By choosing Option 2, contractors indeed are given more flexibility in how to control exposure. However, in the absence of objective data, they will need to hire an industrial hygienist to perform monitoring. Favorable sampling results (below the action level) from these expensive services may serve as objective monitoring data going forward by limiting the cost to a few initial visits.

Compliance Requires Investment

This new standard has turned an industry’s attention to a known respiratory hazard that has affected many people over the years. Some would argue that the mandated policies in this standard are long overdue.

Unlike most new or updated OSHA standards, the Respirable Crystalline Silica Standard contains an extraordinary amount of new administrative requirements and increased costs in order for affected contractors to comply. In most cases, a methodical approach to budgeting and allocating resources should be considered before implementation.

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