It's Here - OSHA's Silica Rule Becomes Enforceable

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September 1, 2017

Since the 1930s, the DOL has been studying the relationship between silica dust and worker deaths. In 1971, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) put a standard in place for silica, limiting worker exposure to 250 micrograms per cubic meter of air over an average of eight hours. Now, after ample warning from the agency, the new silica standard for construction, which limits respirable crystalline silica exposure to workers to 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air over an average of eight hours, goes into effect this month.

On September 23, 2017, 29 CFR 1926.1153, respirable crystalline silica becomes enforceable for employers in the construction industry. For construction contractors who are involved in activities that generate respirable crystalline silica dust, including blasting, grinding, cutting or otherwise working on materials such as concrete, brick and stone, it means a much more strict standard for respirable crystalline silica dust control.

What’s important, and generally overlooked, is that other trades may be required to comply with the new standard if their workers are working around airborne crystalline silica produced by other contractors. For example, if an electrician is working downwind from a contractor dry-cutting a concrete slab and if the electrician is exposed to the dust cloud, the electrician’s employer is required to have a respirable crystalline silica program in place. It is recommended that all construction employers that could have workers exposed to respirable crystalline silica have a silica safety program in place.

Employers who do not comply with the requirements of the new silica standard could receive financial penalties from OSHA. Serious or other-than-serious penalty could be up to $12,675 each. However, repeat offenses or violations deemed by the agency to be willful in nature, are subject to financial penalties of up to $126,749 each.

What is required of construction employers?

Construction employers will initially need to determine how much respirable crystalline silica dust is exposed to workers. If a viable sampling study indicates exposure levels below 25 micrograms, then the employer is not required to implement a silica program.

However, if the viable sampling study indicates exposure levels at or above 25 micrograms, then the employer is required to implement a written plan, provide medical surveillance and documentation, and other responsibilities including implementing relevant engineering controls to effectively reduce the amount of respirable crystalline silica produced.

OSHA"s Table 1 also shows exposure control techniques for common construction tasks. If the table is followed with regard to dust control techniques, respirators and a respirator program may not be required for silica exposures, and viable sampling studies will not be required.

Besides keeping worker exposure below exposure limits, employers will be required to:

  • Implement a written silica exposure control plan.
  • Identify a person to be responsible for the plan.
  • Develop new means to effectively control silica dust (housekeeping procedures, etc.).
  • Ensure medical exams are provided every three years to workers exposed to silica who require wearing a respirator (for the silica) at least 30 days per year.
  • Disseminate silica training to all workers that could be exposed to respirable crystalline silica on how to work safely with silica.
  • Maintain workers’ records regarding silica exposure and associated medical treatment.

Assistance is available

Construction employers who have workers’ compensation may find assistance through loss control (safety) consultants. This assistance is usually at no additional charge beyond the insurance premium, but there are important aspects of requesting help from the insurance carrier that employers should know.

For example, when safety consultants from the insurance company arrive on site, their primary purpose is to be the eyes and ears of the underwriter, who sets the premium for the account. If the company appears to have a less-than-average safety program implementation, that will be communicated back to the underwriter for the purpose of premium adjustment.

Also, safety consultants from insurance companies generally have a complicated relationship with the insurance agent, who brought the client company to the insurance carrier. The insurance carrier’s safety consultant may notice a dozen or more issues and concerns regarding safety, for example, but the consultant is pressured to only issue very few recommendations to the insured business. The reason why is so the insured company doesn’t get upset and complain to the insurance agent. If the insurance agent brings enough premium to the insurance carrier, the insurance carrier will not want to upset that relationship. The end result is typically less-than-complete feedback regarding safety recommendations.

Finally, insurance safety consultants are primarily concerned with risk management, not OSHA compliance. Many insurance companies don’t allow their safety consultants to talk about OSHA-related matters –they just want their safety consultants to address safety issues that may affect insurability.

Better assistance may be found from affiliations with trade organizations like the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC). The Houston chapter of the AGC published a written silica program template.

OSHA has published some materials that can be of use to employers such as a free Small Entity Compliance Guide for respirable crystalline silica in construction.

Finally, safety consulting companies have invested a great deal of time to fully understand OSHA’s respirable crystalline silica rule. Although there are costs involved in hiring a safety consultant, it is generally less expensive than hiring a qualified safety manager (typically 1/3 the cost of hiring a full time safety manager). Safety consultants can deliver customized solutions quickly, and the scope and price of the services are generally negotiable, all while the consultant becomes effectively integrated in the company’s operations and culture.

Safety First Consulting helps businesses identify OSHA compliance issues in their workplaces, manage their safety programs, and we become accountable for the results. In addition to offering custom written safety programs for companies, Safety First Consulting provides required safety training, industrial hygiene sampling, noise sampling, and workplace inspections. See our list of Services.
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