OSHA’s Silica Rule

Robert Grupe / June 2016

Q: What can you tell me about the new OSHA silica ruling?

A: The ruling’s current effective date is June 23, 2016, which means that the construction industry must be in compliance by June 23, 2017. The main goal of the ruling is to control crystalline silica exposure in the workplace. There is a wealth of information available that states that exposure to crystalline silica has serious health effects. This is specific to crystalline silica that is airborne and potentially inhaled. There currently is a ruling in place, and has been for some time. This new ruling is to reduce the permissible exposure level to 50 µg/m3 at an eight-hour Time Weighted Average, essentially cutting the existing PEL by 50 percent. The ruling is divided into two categories, manufacturing which includes marine, and construction. Thus there are specific rulings related to construction and contractors. For construction there are two basic options to follow: one is prescriptive in nature, and the other is performance based.
For the prescriptive option there is a table in the ruling, Table 1, and compliance is assumed to be assured if a contractor follows that table. Should the contractor opt for the performance option, then monitoring is required. Monitoring is the arduous task of physically testing of the amount of airborne silica sand that might be present throughout the construction process.
A significant point for contractors is that the prescriptive path is task driven. Table 1 is a long list of tasks. Associated with each task are the required actions for compliance to the ruling. These tasks are based in part by the power tools that are used and the amount of time that the task takes. Time is segregated into either four or eight hours.
A point of interest is that in the prescriptive path drywall finishing is specifically waived. The following is a quote from the ruling itself: “OSHA has determined that all commercially available joint compounds have no, or very low amounts of, silica and do not pose a risk to workers from respirable crystalline silica and has therefore not included drywall finishing in Table 1.”
What is not clear at this time is plastering and stucco. Quite possibly they may fall under the performance path where PEL will be monitored. Demolition work, along with work in “confined spaces,” requires employing the performance path. There may be ramifications on the way that contractors keep their workplace clean. Specifically, the practices of dry sweeping and cleaning an area of debris with compressed air will not be allowed.
The contractor will have to establish within the firm a “competent person.” This person must be “capable of identifying existing and foreseeable respirable crystalline silica hazards in the workplace and who has authorization to take prompt corrective measures to eliminate or minimize them.”
Throughout the ruling and embedded in Table 1 is the concept of “engineering and work practice methods.” These methods must be employed to assure compliance to the ruling and minimize the amount of monitoring that may otherwise be required. Each task listed in Table 1 has a corresponding engineering and work practice control method.
Even with the above methods in place, some of the tasks will require the use of respirators. Their use and type are based on the type of tool that is being used, and how long the employee is using that tool. Table 1 clearly shows which tasks will require respirators. Respirators will be required when the employer does not or cannot properly implement the engineering controls and work place practices.
Compliance to the rule will require the contractor to draft a “written exposure control plan.” This plan will include all those project specific tasks that have exposure to respirable silica sand. Also in the plan will be a determination on specific engineering controls, work practice methods and respiratory protection that will be employed. Further, a written description on housekeeping practices will be required.
Contractors must effectively communicate to their employees the hazards of exposure and provide training that will cover measures that must be provided to protect employees from exposure to crystalline silica. Employees will need to know who within the firm is the competent person, and understand the “medical surveillance program.” This surveillance program is to protect the individual employee, and is required at certain time levels of exposure.
The last requirement will be recordkeeping. The records will include exposure measurements, what tasks were monitored, and the identity of the laboratory that ran the analysis. A key point in the recordkeeping is that it will center on the individual employee.
The data related to the health effects of exposure to crystalline silica is undisputed. However, the practicality of the ruling is currently being challenged in the courts. As a result of these challenges there will certainly be more information available as time passes.

Robert Grupe is AWCI’s director of technical services. Send your questions to grupe@awci.org, or call him directly at (703) 538.1611.