By: Chris Hall, CHST

OSHA’s proposed Crystalline Silica Rule is making its way through the regulatory process and the impact is going to mean big changes for the construction industry.  These changes have been in the works for over 10 years as the original draft was presented in 2003.  The Notice of Proposed Rule Making was published in the National Register in September 2013, and the comment period for the proposed rule was extended into February 2014.  It is clear from the proposed standard and a recent web chat conducted by OSHA, that big changes are in store for the current regulations.   

The existing rules for silica were originally brought forth in 1971, and little has changed in the way of regulation since then.  The biggest push behind the new rule is to bring the current Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL) into line with what more recent science has determined as safe levels.  The current PEL was established using research which is almost half a century old.  Since that time, more modern methods for measuring employee exposure have been implemented, meaning that techniques are now more accurate.

Respirable Crystalline Silica is created when materials containing crystalline silica are disturbed and create the airborne dust which is commonplace on many construction sites.  Many consider this dust as being part of the general work activity, but studies have shown it to be more dangerous than previously thought.  It is now classified as a human carcinogen by many organizations and agencies, including the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).  Exposure to concentrations of crystalline silica may result in cases of silicosis, lung cancer, and other respiratory or kidney diseases.  With no effective means to treat related diseases, OSHA’s focus is on prevention.  The proposed standard would reduce the PEL to 50 micrograms per cubic meter as an 8-hour time weighted average.  This is a substantial drop from the current level for construction, which is currently about five times that limit. 

Obviously, this will have a significant impact on all construction activity and would mean to employees would be required to put additional controls in place to meet the legal requirements for protecting workers.  Part of this proposed rule also requires employers to monitor silica or objectively demonstrate that levels do not exceed 25 micrograms per cubic meter, which has been established as the action level.  This level would trigger the necessity for exposure assessment and medical surveillance.  The medical surveillance requirements of the proposed rule are more in-line with OSHA’s asbestos or lead standards, which require an employer to have an in-depth evaluation and monitoring of employees exposed to dusts above the PEL for 30 or more days per year. 

Measures to prevent exposure are similar to those already in place, starting with dust control techniques such as wet methods, prevention of dry sweeping, requirements for regulated areas, and of course respiratory protection when control methods are not effective.  Since it is OSHA, there are also very specific training guidelines to be followed as well.  These guidelines are already followed by many companies, but the reduction of the PEL will force affected businesses to re-write and re-assess their programs. 

For all companies involved, the proposed changes to the Crystalline Silica Standard will have a large impact on the costs and how they conduct their business.  It is important that everyone from employees, supervisors, and business managers understand these changes and how it will affect employee safety and bottom line budgets.  Changes in regulations are expected, but this new standard will drastically alter the way almost every construction firm operates.  Now is the time to understand the proposed rule and get ahead of the curve. 

You can find more on OSHA’s proposed Silica Rule and how it will affect your business at