Crystalline silica is found in many common materials, including soil, granite, sand, and even drywall. When these materials are cut, blasted, tunneled through, or drilled through, small particles of silica dust become airborne – and can easily be breathed into your lungs. It poses a severe health risk over a period of time.
Workers (and even bystanders) can contract silicosis, a severely damaging, and potentially fatal, lung disease. Exposure to respirable crystalline silica increases the risk of developing lung infections and lung cancer.
As early as the 1970’s, OSHA recognized the need for safety standards and implemented basic rules regarding silica in the workplace. A few of their warnings:
- Use silica substitutes whenever possible.
- Utilize ventilation and protective equipment.
- Reduce silica dust.
- Provide protective respirator masks.
- Wear disposable clothing covers while working.
In the links below, you can see the limits they imposed and the potential fines for failure to follow the rules!
Fast forward to September 2017 when OSHA implemented a whole new series of extremely strict Crystalline Silica Rules. They estimated that as many as 2 million workers are exposed to silica daily! Further reductions in exposure to crystalline silica are expected to significantly shrink related diseases and deaths and make workplaces safer.
The new standards require:
- Reduction of maximum PEL to 50 micrograms of silica per cubic meter
- Routine monitoring of silica exposure levels
- Limiting time spent in workplaces with silica exposure
- Providing medical exams to employees that are exposed to silica
- Educating employees on the risk of silica inhalation
It is anticipated that implementing the new guidelines will cost the average workplace about $1,200 annually. At the same time, these changes are anticipated to save the US government between 2 and 4 billion dollars annually on healthcare over the course of the next 60 years.
To assist employers in making mandated changes, OSHA published a detailed guide to silica safety on their website, which includes flowcharts detailing methods to control silica risks. The document also includes new strategies for minimizing silica exposure, including:
- Applying water to work surfaces whenever possible to minimize silica dust.
- Providing showers and vacuums at worksites so employees can remove silica dust from clothing and equipment before leaving work.
- Establish a written Exposure Control Plan for every workspace.
Workplaces must designate an employee who is knowledgeable about the company’s ECP to monitor silica exposure and then monitor air samples for crystalline silica. These must be performed according to the guidelines created by OSHA. Additionally, use of safety equipment is required, such as respirator masks and ventilation systems meeting specific requirements set by OSHA. Lastly, employers must provide medical exams for employees who are required to wear respirators 30 or more days per year.
Author: Dick Wagner & Beth Hinton