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New Silica Rules Could Make Huge Impact on Construction Safety

December 28, 2015
 / Safety / 


The long-fought battle between over silica exposure and protections for construction workers might soon come to a head.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) submitted new rules for silica dust exposure to the White House for final approval on Monday, Dec. 21, 2015.

According to The Hill, a newspaper covering Congress and Washington, D.C., the Office of Management and Budget has 90 days to analyze the proposed standards, intended to protect workers from exposure to harmful silica dust, before the final rule is approved or rejected by President Barack Obama.

“The direct effect of this would be $4 billion a year to the construction industry,” HCSS Senior Safety Consultant Jim Goss said. “It’s a game changer, and we will be dealing with lots of issues related to this.”

Silica, also known as quartz, is a common mineral found in soil, sand, concrete, masonry, rock, granite, and some landscaping materials. The dust created by cutting, grinding, sanding, or drilling these materials can contain microscopic crystalline silica particles that can cause lung disease and lung cancer, even with limited exposure.

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OSHA’s newest proposed silica rule is intended to protect construction and manufacturing workers from exposure to this dust.

Current OSHA regulation 29 CFR 1926.55(a), established in 2013, requires construction employers to keep worker exposures at or below a Permissible Exposure Level (PEL) of 0.1 micrograms per cubic meter of air (mg/m3), while the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends an exposure level of 0.05 mg/m3 or less.

The contents of OSHA’s new proposed final rule are not yet public, but proposed rules from August 2013 attempted to cut silica exposure to 0.05 mg/m3 to meet NIOSH recommendations.

While labor groups have been begging for updates to be made, some business groups say the rules are unnecessary and could increase construction industry regulatory costs.

“Anything that looks like dust is going to have to be tested,” Goss said. “We’re going to have a panic. Road and bridge contractors, everything they do will be affected. 

New regulations are expected to require any material containing silica to be cut wet instead of dry, which reduces the amount of dust that enters the air. But Goss said these requirements will be hard for contractors to follow.

“What do you do in cold climates?” he said. “You can’t cut wet. Architects won’t let us cut brick and block wet; they want to cut dry because it’s a cleaner cut and there’s no staining. This is going to be huge.”

Labor groups, who have been arguing for stronger silica rules for decades, say the changes are for the good of workers.

“In the nearly 20 years since the fight began to win a new silica standard to protect workers, thousands have become disabled or died from exposure to silica dust,” Peg Seminario, the AFL-CIO’s Director of Safety and Health, told The Hill. “But now the finish line is finally in sight.”

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