The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s new silica standard for construction took effect on September 23, 2017.
What that means is sign contractors who engage in activities that create silica dust — that is “respirable crystalline silica”— such as by cutting, grinding or blasting materials like concrete, stone and brick, must meet a stricter standard for how much of that dust workers inhale. The same goes for employers of tradespeople working around such activities. The new standard also specifies what services employers must make available to workers who are exposed to high levels of silica dust and the training required of those who are at risk.
This new standard has been under development for almost 20 years and supersedes OSHA's first silica standard, issued in 1971. The old standard required that silica dust particles, which are 100 times smaller than sand granules, be limited to 250 micrograms per cubic meter of air over an average of eight hours — the hours of a typical work shift. The new standard reduces that to 50 micrograms over the same time period.
Those who do not comply with the new standard will be subject to a maximum fine of $12,675 for a serious or other-than-serious violation; $12,675 per day past the abatement date for a failure-to-abate violation; and $126,749 for a repeated or willful violation.
In addition to the exposure limits, the new rules require contractors to:
- Develop a written silica exposure control plan.
- Designate someone to implement the plan.
- Adjust housekeeping practices to maximize control of silica dust.
- Provide medical exams every three years to employees who are exposed to silica to the point of having to wear a respirator for 30 days or more each year. The exams must include lung-function tests and chest X-rays.
- Train workers on how to limit exposure to silica.
- Keep records of workers’ silica exposure and related medical treatment.
Implementing the new rules requires an initial assessment of how much silica dust a company’s operations generate. If the reading falls below the level of 25 micrograms, then the company is not required to provide medical tests, develop a written plan or undertake any of the suggested engineering controls (such as wearing respirators, wetting work down with tools like a wet saw, or using a vacuum device to reduce the volume of dust).