OSHA’s New Silica Rule
Silica may not sound like an issue that needs to be addressed by facility owners in the manufacturing industry. But this ubiquitous mineral compound is a major component of the actual bricks and mortar that companies build with, and it has made news lately as a substance being targeted by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
Construction companies will soon incur large costs as they strive to comply with OSHA’s new silica rule and mitigate risks for employees working in the presence of silica-containing materials. A ripple effect is predicted to be felt across many industries, as well as upstream for manufacturers that are planning new construction, expansion or retrofit projects. Of particular concern for facility owners will be the modifications or expansions of existing facilities. Simple activities like concrete saw cutting of slabs can have an impact on both the construction and maintenance groups performing the work, as well as on surrounding employees, if not addressed through the proper training, equipment and planning.
Moreover, like the disclosure of asbestos and lead, disclosure of known silica-containing materials must be part of any facility purchase, upfit or renovation. Additionally, the presence of silica can pose a hazard to occupants of the facility and adjacent properties.
What will the Rule Require?
Silicon dioxide (aka silica) can be crystalline or noncrystalline, with quartz, cristobalite and tridymite being examples of crystalline silica. Asphalt, concrete products, drywall, plaster, roofing pavers, fill dirt and top soil, various stones and stucco are some, but not all, of the silica-containing construction materials that may be on a manufacturing facility jobsite.
Workers across many trades are potentially exposed to silica. When silica-containing materials are cut, blasted, crushed or ground, particulates—respirable crystalline silica—become airborne and represent a serious hazard to workers.
OSHA updated its silica standards in 2016 for the first time in over 40 years. The construction industry was required to comply with the new rule (29 CFDR 1926.1153) and OSHA began enforcement on September 23, 2017. Old OSHA rules set a permissible exposure limit (PEL) for respirable crystalline silica for construction activity at 250 µg/m3 (micrograms per cubic meter of air). The new limit is a PEL of 50 µg/m3 with an action level of 25 µg/m3 for an eight-hour average exposure.
These values represent a significant reduction in allowable exposure limits; a variety of construction processes will have to change in order to comply. This means owners and other stakeholders can expect to see quite a few adjustments and line-item additions to their construction projects in the future.
Contractors will have the option of developing their own methods of dust control, but this would involve placing monitors on the employees and then testing the samples collected. Alternatively, contractors can comply with Table 1 found in the standard 29 CFR 1926.1153(c)(1).
As outlined in this prescriptive path, contractors must:
Provide devices that spray or otherwise deliver water to the point where a silica-containing substance is being cut. According to OSHA, “Wet cutting is the best way to reduce the amount of silica dust that becomes airborne during sawing because it controls exposure at its source.” There must be a continuous feed of water to the point of impact on the equipment. Alternatively, dust collection systems such as a HEPA-vacuum can be used to collect dust into a container.
Provide respirators when engineering controls such as water and dust controls are inadequate and during other activities as required per Table 1.
Develop a written exposure control plan, then review it annually, making changes if necessary. Written plans must describe all tasks involving exposure to silica as well as outline the specific strategies used to limit exposure for each task (i.e., equipment used or work practices implemented). The plan must also include the housekeeping measures used to limit silica exposure. Finally, OSHA requires “a description of the procedures used to restrict access to work areas, when necessary, to minimize the number of employees exposed to respirable crystalline silica and their level of exposure, including exposures generated by other employers or sole proprietors.” Contractors will be required to designate a competent person to implement the plan.
Provide medical evaluations and exams, per the new standard, for individuals wearing a respirator for 30 days or more each year.
Keep records of workers’ silica exposure and related medical treatment.
Train workers and supervisors on silica risks and how to limit exposures. The training must cover proper use and maintenance of equipment and controls as well as outline the medical surveillance procedures that are required by the rule.
To accomplish the above, contractors will be purchasing new machinery, tools and equipment; incurring costs associated with ongoing training and education, medical surveillance and recordkeeping; and making other investments. These costs will be factored into their bids. An early report commissioned by OSHA pointed out that the “initial impact is to force affected industries to purchase equipment, supplies, and services to implement the new regulations. They also might need to divert workers towards compliance activities, thereby reducing overall labor productivity for the industry.”
Contractors are also subject to fines. OSHA will assess fines of $12,675 per violation. If companies demonstrate a failure to abate, they will be assessed a fine of $12,675 per day beyond the abatement date. (Companies that have willful or repeated violations face fines of $126,749 per violation.)
Several industry groups have undertaken analyses to determine the annual cost of compliance; most are in the ball park of $4 billion to $5 billion. OSHA itself has estimated $1 billion per year and estimated that economic benefits would offset those costs.
Some experts on the new ruling have suggested that it qualifies as “disruptive,” just as certain technologies have come to be seen as disruptive. This is because it will drive changes across a broad range of goods-and-services providers. For example, tool companies have rolled out many new product lines that offer improved dust collection and disposal. OSHA’s requirement for increased employee monitoring is expected to incentivize companies to improve their adoption of technology, since digital filing and record-keeping is typically more efficient than paper-based filing.
Manufacturing facility owners will feel the impact of the new OSHA regulations and must shoulder some of the responsibility for compliance. They will need to address the presence of silica in all stages of project planning, take appropriate precautions, and engage qualified contractors that have taken a proactive approach to dealing with the silica mandates.
Brian Gallagher is Vice President, Marketing, for O’Neal, Inc. O’Neal is an integrated design and construction firm based in Greenville, SC. Brian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 864-551-0362.