Occupational Health & Safety

OSHA Proposes Lower PEL for Crystalline Silica

The proposed rule would update the current permissible exposure limit, which was set in 1971, and would apply to construction and general industry, including hydraulic fracturing operations at gas drilling sites. Several key stakeholders expressed support.

OSHA Assistant Secretary Dr. David Michaels on Aug. 23 announced a new proposed rule issued by the agency that would set a new permissible exposure limit (PEL) of 50 micrograms of respirable crystalline silica per cubic meter of air, averaged over an eight-hour day. This rule has been awaiting action at OIRA, the OMB gatekeeper office for proposed federal regulations, for more than a year, so the announcement is major news for employers in construction, natural gas drilling, and some in general industry, as well.

Michaels, speaking on a conference call, did not explain why the rule has been bottled up for so long. Instead, he said OSHA personnel were still conducting analyses and making field visits until recently, suggesting those had delayed its publication. He also said public hearings will begin in March 2014 in Washington, D.C., and urged the public to participate by visiting www.osha.gov/silica and reading fact sheets about the rule. A video and other materials are posted there.

A NIOSH official and a worker who described the damage done to his health by silica exposure joined Michaels in speaking on the call. Michaels took questions, and one asked why OSHA did not vigorously enforce the existing PEL rather than issue a lower one that may be difficult for industry to meet. "It will absolutely be necessary to go below the current PEL" to protect workers adequately, Michaels answered.

The current permissible exposure limit was set in 1971. This lower PEL would apply to construction and general industry, including hydraulic fracturing operations at gas drilling sites.

Michaels said the agency estimates the lower PEL would prevent about 700 deaths per year from illnesses such as silicosis, COPD, and lung cancer that can be caused by breathing crystalline silica. "This proposed rule will bring worker protection into the 21st century," Michaels said.

He said he had spoken earlier in the day with his MSHA counterpart, Joe Main, to inform him that the rule was being issued.

Mark Ellis, president of the National Industrial Sand Association, issued a statement in which he promised NISA will work with OSHA on the proposed rule. NISA member companies are the largest producers of industrial sand in the United States and supply it for the oil and gas industry, glass manufacturing, foundries, building products, water filtration, and other industrial uses. "We look forward to working with OSHA on its proposed crystalline silica standard because we believe a rule is needed to further protect workers. We agree with OSHA's mandating dust monitoring and medical surveillance. NISA companies have been voluntarily conducting dust monitoring and medical surveillance in their workplaces for more than 30 years and, as a result, have virtually eliminated silicosis from their workplaces," Ellis said in the statement. "Because our companies have successfully protected their workers under the current permissible exposure limit, we do not believe there is a proven need to lower that level and disagree with OSHA's proposal to cut that limit in half. We believe our shared goal of eradicating silicosis from American workplaces can be achieved under the current exposure limit by requiring companies to comply with proposed rules for regular monitoring of the air their workers breathe to ensure it is below the current limit."

For information about NISA's Occupational Health Program, visit http://www.sand.org/Silica-Occupational-Health-Program.

AIHA President Barbara J. Dawson, CIH, CSP, released a statement expressing support for the rule: "AIHA is pleased to learn that after more than two years of waiting for the White House to release the proposed rule for occupational exposure to respirable crystalline silica, the process is now moving forward. The document proposes a new permissible exposure limit of 50 micrograms of respirable crystalline silica per cubic meter of air (50 μg/m3), calculated as an 8-hour time-weighted average. AIHA will offer more definitive comments as soon as the proposed rule has been thoroughly reviewed. We look forward to working with OSHA and other stakeholders in finalizing a rule that will reduce employees' exposure to silica in the workplace."

Tony Bodway, chairman of the Silica/Milling Machine Partnership -- made up of the National Asphalt Pavement Association, milling-machine manufacturers, labor, academia, and NIOSH -- said it has worked to identify retrofits for existing milling machines that effectively reduce potential silica exposure below OSHA's new proposed PEL. "The partnership is committed to doing the best work possible to ensure that workers are safe and that any silica exposure is reduced to the absolutely lowest level possible," said Bodway, operations manager for Wisconsin-based contractor Payne & Dolan Inc. "These are complicated field trials, with lots of coordination and effort, all while working alongside government occupational health agency personnel. Everyone involved has been focused on ensuring we do our best." His statement said while the new PEL is achievable, "as part of the federal rulemaking process, NAPA will file comments offering suggestions to help better calibrate the rule to the industry's exposure potential."

Tom O'Connor, executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH), welcomed the rule, saying in a statement that the proposed construction standard suggests specific control methods, such as wet cutting and ventilation in certain situations. "America's workers could not wait any longer for the White House to issue a rule to protect them from over-exposure to silica dust," he said. "When this rule goes into effect, hundreds of thousands of workers will benefit from increased protections from entirely preventable silica-related disease. Workers in industries exposed to silica dust include some of the country's most vulnerable workers. Low-wage immigrant workers and temporary workers are disproportionally represented in the industries with silica exposure -- and are the most vulnerable to retaliation should they report potential hazards, injuries or illnesses. This new rule will help to pull them out of the shadows and make them safer at work. Everyone, regardless of immigration status, deserves a safe workplace."

"As workers have waited for federal regulatory protection from silica dust, some states -- such as New Jersey and California -- have passed their own measures, like banning the dry cutting of masonry materials," he added. "Now, it's time for all of America's workers to receive the same protection. The Obama administration should finalize the rule as quickly as possible."

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