Silica Dust Exposure Final Rule Issued by DOL; First Update to Exposure Limit in Over 40 Years

A new rule on silica dust exposure will dramatically reduce the incidence of a host of diseases for American workers exposed to this hazard in their workplaces, the U.S. Department of Labor said yesterday in announcing the issuance of a rule it first proposed more than two years ago.

It’s the first update to the exposure standard since 1971.

OSHA estimates that when the final rule on Occupational Exposure to Respirable Crystalline Silica becomes fully effective, it will save more than 600 lives annually and prevent more than 900 new cases of silicosis – an incurable and progressive disease – each year. The agency also estimates the final rule will provide net benefits of about $7.7 billion per year.

About 2.3 million men and women face exposure to respirable crystalline silica in their workplaces, including two million construction workers who drill and cut silica-containing materials such as concrete and stone, and 300,000 workers in operations such as brick manufacturing, foundries and hydraulic fracturing. Most employers can limit harmful dust exposure by using equipment that is widely available – generally using water to keep dust from getting into the air or a ventilation system to capture dust where it is created.

The final rule will improve worker protection by:

  • Reducing the permissible exposure limit for crystalline silica to 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air, averaged over an eight-hour shift.
  • Requiring employers to use engineering controls (such as water or ventilation) and work practices to limit worker exposure; provide respiratory protection when controls are not able to limit exposures to the permissible level; limit access to high exposure areas; train workers; and provide medical exams to highly exposed workers.
  • Providing greater certainty and ease of compliance to construction employers – including many small employers – by including a table of specified controls they can follow to be in compliance, without having to monitor exposures.
  • Staggering compliance dates to ensure employers have sufficient time to meet the requirements, e.g., extra time for the hydraulic fracturing (fracking) industry to install new engineering controls and for all general industry employers to offer medical surveillance to employees exposed between the PEL and 50 micrograms per cubic meter and the action level of 25 micrograms per cubic meter.

Employers don’t have to comply with the rule right away; it’s being phased in with different dates for the construction industry and another for general industry and maritime companies.

Employers covered by the construction standard have until June 23, 2017 to comply with most requirements. Employers covered by the general industry and maritime standard have until June 23, 2018 to comply with most requirements; additional time is provided to offer medical exams to some workers and for hydraulic fracturing employers to install dust controls to meet the new exposure limit.

House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-MN) and Workforce Protections Subcommittee Chairman Tim Walberg (R-MI) were somewhat critical of the rule, not surprisingly. In a statement they said, The department’s first priority should have been strong enforcement of existing standards, something it has been unwilling to do. Even the department admits an alarming number of jobsites have not complied with existing requirements, yet the agency has failed to hold them accountable. There is no reason to believe this new approach will be any different.

And they continued: This new rule will impact countless workplaces across the country. There are a number of concerns with the rule that the committee will carefully review, including its feasibility, the cost to small businesses, and whether employers have enough time to implement it. We have an obligation to workers and employers to ensure responsible health and safety policies are in place and properly enforced.




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