On March 25, the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) released in the Federal Register its Final Rule for Occupational Exposure to Respirable Crystalline Silica. OSHA is amending its existing standards for occupational exposure to respirable crystalline silica by lowering the permissible exposure limit (PEL) for the general industry/maritime and construction industry after 45 years. The rule is effective June 23, 2016.
According to OSHA, crystalline silica is a common mineral found in many naturally occurring materials and used in many industrial products and at construction sites. Materials like sand, concrete, stone and mortar contain crystalline silica. Crystalline silica is also used to make products such as glass, pottery, ceramics, bricks, concrete and artificial stone. Industrial sand used in certain operations, such as foundry work and hydraulic fracturing (fracking), is also a source of silica exposure. OSHA has been concerned about worker exposure to respirable crystalline silica for decades because of cases of silica inhalation that have caused silicosis, lung disease and kidney disease.
This long-awaited final rule comes after the proposed rule was released by OSHA in late 2013, after which OSHA received over 2,000 public comments, and held 14 days of public hearings where more than 70 interest groups testified. ACA had commented on the proposed rule in February 2014.
OSHA has determined that employees exposed to respirable crystalline silica at the previous permissible exposure limits (PELs) "face a significant risk of material impairment to their health. The evidence in the record for this rulemaking indicates that workers exposed to respirable crystalline silica are at increased risk of developing silicosis and other non-malignant respiratory diseases, lung cancer, and kidney disease." The final rule establishes a new, lower PEL of 50 micrograms of respirable crystalline silica per cubic meter of air (50 μg/m3) as an 8-hour time weighted average (TWA) in all industries covered by the rule. This new limit is 2-5 times lower than the current PEL. It also includes other provisions to protect employees, such as requirements for exposure assessment, methods for controlling exposure, respiratory protection, medical surveillance, hazard communication, and recordkeeping.
According to Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Dr. David Michaels, this new standard is consistent with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health's (NIOSH) recommendation 40 years ago. Dr. Michaels also stated in his announcement about the final rule that this new standard is the lowest level that can be reasonably achieved through engineering controls and work practices in most operations, and that most employers are already implementing the kinds of measures the final rule prescribes.
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