Industry Responds to OSHA Rules on Respirable Crystalline Silica
If you’re not familiar with the term, you will be soon.
This past spring, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued rules to limit workers’ exposure to respirable crystalline silica. While the rule has been publically announced, employers covered by OSHA construction standards have between now and next June to come into regulatory compliance. After June 23, 2017, employers will be subject to OSHA review and penalty for non-compliance.
For many in the concrete construction industry, the OSHA action was not a surprise. In fact, OSHA itself is no stranger to silica dust control: it has had nominal exposure standards on the books for more than 40 years. In OSHA’s own words, “the current exposure limits do not adequately protect worker health.”
Commonly labeled as “dust” at the worksite, crystalline silica is a component of concrete that becomes breathable when drilling, sawing, polishing, cutting or crushing concrete, brick, block, rock or stone. Breathable crystalline silica is capable of crippling and killing workers by causing a range of pulmonary (lung) diseases, from silicosis and lung cancer to emphysema, and even kidney disease. According to OSHA, it’s estimated that 2.3 million US workers are exposed to respirable silica dust at work.
“These diseases … are not relics of the past,” says Robert Cohen, M.D., pulmonologist at Cook County Hospital in Chicago. “We see patients who are coming in from foundries, stonecutting operations, and construction jobs and sites with silicosis.” And Dr. David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health cautions, “Limiting exposure to silica dust is essential. Every year many exposed workers not only lose their ability to work, but also to breathe.”
As inevitable as the OSHA regulation may have been, employer reaction and compliance-readiness is mixed at best. Some concrete construction contractors are already making strides in safeguarding workers’ health from respirable crystalline silica through a wide range of active and passive safety practices, aimed at greatly limiting breathing exposure.
Some contractors are in various states of puzzlement, worry and uncertainty about how the regulations will disrupt workflow, pile on administrative obligations and force retooling (budget dollars) to meet compliance. The questions are many:
Who’s responsible for understanding exposure limits? Is it the company? What kind of testing equipment is compliant? Is exposure based on general dust conditions or individual activity? Will OSHA set out guidelines for each individual activity or application, say concrete drilling? How do you approach the respirable crystalline silica question in a smart, compliant way?
In short, what’s next?