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Silica is a common mineral found in the earth’s surface. Many widely used building products contain silica such as glass, pottery, ceramics, bricks, and artificial stone. When part of a solid, silica doesn’t pose much of a hazard. It’s when those building materials are modified or altered is when silica can become dangerous.
This is why OSHA silica construction standards are so important for contractors to follow. Here’s everything you need to know about the latest standards and how you can be sure to comply with them.
When silica containing products are cut, sanded, drilled, ground and crushed, the process releases very tiny particles, which are 100 times smaller than the grains of sand you see on the beach, known as "respirable crystalline silica."
Unfortunately, these tiny particulates pose significant health risks if workers unwittingly inhale them on a regular basis. Workers who are regularly exposed to respirable crystalline silica are at a greater risk of developing several silica-related diseases such as Silicosis (an incurable lung diseases), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and kidney disease. Exposed workers also have an elevated risk of developing lung cancer, which is most often seen in long term quarry and granite workers.
OSHA’s silica standards for the construction industry are designed to protect workers from the risks of working with crystalline silica by controlling the exposure so that no employee is exposed to an airborne concentration of respirable crystalline silica in excess of 50 micrograms per cubic foot, calculated as an 8-hour TWA.
To achieve this, this construction standard, which was revised in 2016, took a somewhat different approach than many other construction standards. The revised standard provides what OSHA calls “flexible alternatives” to achieving compliance by providing employers with two different control methods to choose from.
Specified Exposure Control Methods: Employers can use the control measures laid out in Table 1 of the construction standard which outlines 18 of the most common construction tasks and provides effective dust control methods. Employers who follow Table 1 correctly and fully are not required to measure workers’ exposure to silica from those tasks and are not subject to the PEL. It should be noted however that in some cases, following Table 1 will not be sufficient and workers may still have to wear a respirator.
Alternative Exposure Control Methods: Employers who do not or cannot fully implement the control measures outlined in Table 1 of the standard can instead measure a worker’s silica exposure through and decide independently which dust control measures will work best to limit the worker’s exposure to the PEL. These requirements can be found in 29 CFR 1926.1153(d).
With any standard, there are frequently underlying themes that are often missed by employers. With the silica standard, employers should understand that before they can choose which control method to use to protect their workers—they have to first assess their working environments to determine what the exposure hazards are and how serious they are.
For example, if workers are sawing silica-containing materials, the first step should be to recognize there’s a potential silica exposure hazard. This is done through the hazard assessment process. Once the hazard is identified, the next step for an employer would be to begin looking to eliminate or reduce the hazard through the use of engineering controls. This is where Table 1 mentioned above would come in.
Now, while OSHA has provided “flexible alternatives” to choose from, there are other parts of the standard that everyone must comply with, regardless of which control method is chosen.
First, you need to develop a written silica exposure control plan and designate someone to implement it. And, it can’t be just anyone. It must be a “competent person” which OSHA defines in 29 CFR 1926.1153(b) as: An individual who is 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. The competent person must have the knowledge and ability necessary to fulfill the responsibilities set forth in paragraph (g) of this section.
Next, take a look at your housekeeping practices to make sure they aren’t creating additional hazards. For example, if your employees are using compressed air to blow dust instead of using an explosion proof vacuum to clean it up, they may be creating the perfect environment for a dust explosion as well as creating a respiratory hazard where there wasn’t one before.
These additional requirements also apply to your employees. If you don’t already, you’ll have to start offering a medical exam which includes a chest X-Ray and lung function test every three to any employees who are required by the standard to wear a respirator for 30 or more days every year.
OSHA silica standards may be a hassle for employers, but the truth is, they’re all focused on one important goal: keeping your workers healthy and safe.
And at the end of the day, they’re just one component of a comprehensive safety program. Construction workers constantly face risks that no other workforce has to deal with. It only makes sense that you would go the extra mile to protect them.
If you need a bit of guidance on how to go about this the right way, we can help. We’re proud to provide novel solutions to even the most difficult construction safety challenges because we know that your workers deserve nothing less than the best.
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