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OSHA Silica Regulations One Year In: The Latest Developments and How Businesses Can Remain Compliant
Silica exposure remains a serious threat to nearly 2 million U.S. employees working in conditions with high concentrations of general airborne carcinogens.1
Last year, OSHA took a stand and decided changes to respirable silica regulations were essential due to outdated limits on the occupational exposure limits (PEL’s) of airborne silica particles. These changes were also put into effect to support employee wellbeing, with the aim to save up to 700 lives2 and reduce new silicosis cases by 1,600 per year.3
It is well-known that these dangerous inhalants cause various lung and kidney diseases, liver problems and prolonged exposure can even result in various cancers.
With all these recent changes in regulation taking place, let’s look at how businesses are adapting to remain compliant and prioritizing the health and safety of their employees.
The New Rules
The new regulations limit the PEL of airborne carcinogens to “50 micrograms of respirable crystalline silica per cubic meter of air (μg/m3), averaged over an 8-hour day.”4 Anything above 25 micrograms is what is known as the “action level.” This is the level where work areas need to be assessed for potential health risks. The summary below lists some of the biggest silica regulation changes that were made last year:
- Businesses need to restrict housekeeping practices that expose workers to silica where feasible alternatives are available.
- Medical exams, including chest X-rays and lung function tests, are compulsory every three years for workers exposed to the OEL for 30 or more days a year.
- Workers must be thoroughly trained on tasks that result in silica exposure and the best ways to limit exposure.
- Those in charge of health and safety need to keep records of exposure measurements, objective data, and medical exams.
This is the lowest reasonable level that can be achieved with current engineering methods; however, even these levels don’t eliminate all the risks for your workforce.
Employee health should be a top priority, and steps should be taken to limit airborne particles, in advance, to avoid stricter penalties and maintain a healthy workforce.
Those who fail to comply with new regulations could face a minimum of $5,000 per offense, and fines can go up to $70,000 in the United States.
Consecutive days of non-compliance for certain guidelines warrants anywhere up to $7,000 per day. Subcontractors are typically penalized similarly to primary contractors under the same safety standards.
Penalties can be mitigated as soon as compliance is reached, so taking the necessary steps to rectify problem areas promptly and properly will mean recurring fines won’t build up.
However, in some circumstances, OSHA has limited enforcement power. For example, it has no authority to issue citations to self-employed subcontractors (with no employees). In these cases, it is up to contractors and individuals to ensure these standards are met in their contractual agreements.
Mistakes Are Still Being Made
Despite OSHA’s bid for increased compliance it has still recorded a total of 117 violations in the U.S. so far since stricter penalties came into play. Roughly 80 percent5 of these were considered “serious” resulting in hefty fines.
The most common violations were for failing to conduct an exposure assessment for respirable silica, a lack of suitable equipment and not possessing or being able to show evidence of a written exposure control plan.
One of OSHA’s main concerns is the use of subcontractors as they are notoriously difficult to police. 2019 saw 2,450 violations for lack of “respiratory protection.”6 The companies responsible for these violations were not giving their staff appropriate medical examinations and health checks and did not have a “respiratory protection program.”
While rates of silicosis diagnoses have declined rapidly over the last five decades, serious cases are still cropping up today. Most notably, the engineered stone industry, based predominantly in California, Colorado, Texas and Washington, saw 18 men with diagnoses that were “severe” and progressive. Of those cases, two men died.
Based on these most recent findings, it seems the most important steps are often those being overlooked by non-compliant companies.7 The first actions for businesses struggling should be to revisit OSHA’s latest regulations, consider where they are falling short of compliance and come up with solutions as quickly as possible.
For example, companies being fined often have appropriate measures in place, but cannot provide evidence of actionable steps, like providing a written control exposure plan for their companies.
A solution could be to appoint a competent employee familiar with health and safety regulations and make them responsible for writing this documentation and ensuring it is executed correctly. Another way to increase business compliance is to invest in the right industrial equipment to ensure workplaces are cleaned to a high professional standard. Consider industrial vacuums with a HEPA filter, as these remove more than 99.97 percent of dust particles down to 0.3 microns in size.
Finally, and most importantly, successful silica avoidance comes down to proper training. Alongside mandatory written plans, employees should have regular training on the guidelines to reduce the risk of mistakes and minimizing exposure. In many cases, training in silica safety and practice is enough to satisfy regulatory officials. Visual aids in areas of high concentrations of dust, alongside training, can also be used as reminders of the importance of maintaining these stricter safety standards.8
Improving Conditions for Workers
Methods of gathering air quality data are much simpler now, and the new focus on the respirable fraction of silica makes it easier to identify at-risk areas and implement safety measures.
Conditions for workers can be improved significantly if they are well-informed about the most practical methods to avoid over-exposure. Silica and asbestos particles get airborne during sandblasting, stone cutting and many other construction practices.
With even common cement and brick harboring between 20 to 30 percent silica, limiting these particles from becoming airborne is paramount to avoiding ingestion of the harmful products.
When cutting materials, wetting the blade and the material makes the dust congeal onto the blade, which reduces how much becomes airborne. It is possible to get attachable water dispensers on concrete saws to help this too.
Ensure rooms are well-ventilated and enforce the advised housekeeping rules and suitable water delivery and dust collection systems9 that will help clear some of the dust before it is inhaled.
When it comes to improving working conditions and employee health, people don’t often use their breaks. When dealing with silica, missing out on breaks can be especially detrimental. Check all employees are aware it is advised to spend no more than four hours in this environment with a ‘no return within two hours’ policy.10
OSHA also provides an actionable guide on adequate respiratory protection, which means all businesses can check their teams are kitted out correctly when handling silica.11
With new legislation in place, OSHA is already considering further changes and regulations like bringing the fracking industry in compliance with new PEL’s in 2021.
Respirable crystalline silica can be found in the form of “frac sand,” which the rules are looking to mitigate respiratory problems. It is found at every stage of the fracking process and in large quantities prompting regulatory action.
The recently introduced “action level” is to be the new benchmark for frequently medical exams. As of June 23, 2020, if you are exposed to concentration levels that exceed 25 micrograms a day, for more than 30 days a year, you will also be taken in for frequent medical exams.
2 https://www.osha.gov/silica/factsheets/OSHA_FS-3683_Silica_ Overview.html
3 https://www.osha.gov/silica/factsheets/OSHA_FS-3683_Silica_ Overview.html
8 https://www.agc.org/sites/default/files/Files/Safety%20%26%20Health/ Flow%20Chart_03.01.17_0.pdf
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2020 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.