OSHA update: Silica

The respirable crystalline silica in general industry and maritime standard went into effect June 23, 2018. Its provisions establish a new 8-hour time-weighted average permissible exposure limit, action level and associated ancillary requirements. Under the new standard, the PEL now limits worker exposures to 50 micrograms of respirable crystalline silica per cubic meter of air, averaged over an eight-hour day.

While a compliance directive on the standard has not been finalized, OSHA has released initial enforcement guidelines and during the first 30 days of enforcement will offer compliance assistance for employers who make a good faith effort to comply with the new standard. OSHA also released a fact sheet on the regulation in February. OSHA’s Small Entity Compliance Guide for the Respirable Crystalline Silica Standard for General Industry and Maritime discusses methods of compliance, such as using engineering and work practice controls, assessing exposure levels, respirator use, medical surveillance, and written exposure plans.

Insights from the first six months of enforcement

Enforcement actions taken in the construction industry, where the standard has been in effect since Oct. 23, 2017, can be a helpful guide to other industries. OSHA estimates that 2.3 million workers are exposed to silica when they are at work and businesses and materials impacted include dental laboratories, railroads, paintings and coatings, hydraulic fracturing for gas and oil, asphalt products manufacturing, jewelry production, refractory products, landscaping, ready-mix concrete, and cut stone and stone products.

According to an article, “What the First Six Months of Silica Enforcement Tells Us” in EHS Today, as of April 23, 2018, OSHA and State Plans that have adopted the silica rule have issued 117 violations, 80% of which are classified as “serious.” The most common violations of the silica standard cited are:

  • 35 cited violations of 29 C.F.R. § 1926.1153(d)(2)(i) for failure to conduct an exposure assessment of worker exposure to respirable crystalline. If an inspector finds an employer has not done an exposure assessment, then one can expect a citation.
  • 31 cited violations of 29 C.F.R. § 1926.1153(c)(1) for failing to adhere to the Table 1 list of equipment/tasks and OSHA’s required engineering and work control methods and respiratory protection. Attorney John F. Martin of the law firm Ogletree Deakins notes that this is surprising because these requirements are not mandatory. He points out that if a construction employer opts not to follow the controls and respiratory protections for the listed equipment and tasks, then it is required to follow the alternative exposure control methods cited, including conducting an exposure assessment.
  • 20 cited violations of 29 C.F.R. § 1926.1153(g)(1) for lack of a written exposure control plan. This includes employers who do not have a written plan at all and others whose plans are not in compliance. The control plans must include four minimum elements describing workplace tasks that involve exposure to silica: engineering controls, work practices and respiratory protection used to limit employee exposure to silica for each task, housekeeping measures used to limit exposure to silica, and procedures used to restrict access to work areas to minimize the number of employees exposed to silica.

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