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March 28, 2016

OSHA Issues Final Rule on Silica Dust

Respirator required in this area
OSHA has issued a final rule to limit exposure to respirable crystalline silica. The rule is comprised of two standards, one for Construction and one for General Industry and Maritime. OSHA estimates the rule will save over 600 lives and prevent more than 900 new cases of silicosis each year, once its effects are fully realized.

Workers Impacted by the New Silica Rule:

About 2.3 million workers are exposed to respirable crystalline silica in their workplaces, including 2 million construction workers who drill, cut, crush, or grind silica-containing materials such as concrete and stone, and 300,000 workers in general industry operations such as brick manufacturing, foundries and hydraulic fracturing. From 2005 through 2014, silicosis was listed as the underlying or a contributing cause of death
for more than 1,100 people in the United States, but most deaths from silicosis go undiagnosed and unreported. Those fatality numbers do not include additional deaths from other silica-related diseases such as COPD, lung cancer and kidney disease.

The new permissible exposure limit (PEL) limits worker exposures to 50 micrograms of respirable crystalline silica per cubic meter of air, averaged over an eight-hour day. This level is the same for all workplaces covered by the standard (general industry/maritime and construction), and is roughly 50 percent of the previous PEL for general industry, and roughly 20 percent of the previous PEL for construction and shipyards. OSHA says previous PELs were outdated, inconsistent and did not adequately protect worker health. The old PELs were based on studies from the 1960s and earlier that did not reflect more recent scientific evidence showing that low-level exposures to silica cause serious health effects, including lung cancer. 

Key Provisions of the New Silica Rule:

  • Reduces the permissible exposure limit (PEL) for respirable crystalline silica to 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air, averaged over an 8-hour shift
  • Requires employers to: 
    • Use engineering controls (such as water or ventilation) to limit worker exposure to the PEL
    • Provide respirators when engineering controls cannot adequately limit exposure
    • Limit worker access to high exposure areas
    • Develop a written exposure control plan, offer medical exams to highly exposed workers and train workers on silica risks and how to limit exposures
  • Provides medical exams to monitor highly exposed workers and gives them information about their lung health
  • Provides flexibility to help employers - especially small businesses - protect workers from silica exposure

Compliance Schedule:

Both standards contained in the final rule take effect on June 23, 2016, after which industries have one to five years to comply with most requirements, based on the following schedule:
  • Construction - June 23, 2017, one year after the effective date.
  • General Industry and Maritime - June 23, 2018, two years after the effective date.
  • Hydraulic Fracturing - June 23, 2018, two years after the effective date for all provisions except Engineering Controls, which have a compliance date of June 23, 2021.

OSHA-approved State Plans have six months to adopt standards that are at least as effective as federal OSHA standards. Businesses in states that operate their own safety and health plans should check with their State Plan for the implementation date of the new standards.

A full review of scientific evidence, industry consensus standards, and extensive stakeholder input provide the basis for the new rule, which was proposed in September 2013. The rule-making process allowed OSHA to solicit input for nearly a full year. The agency held 14 days of public hearings, during which more than 200 stakeholders presented testimony, and accepted over 2,000 comments, amounting to about 34,000 pages of material. In response to this extensive public engagement, OSHA made substantial changes, including enhanced employer flexibility in choosing how to reduce levels of respirable crystalline silica, while maintaining or improving worker protection.

Learn more about the new silica rule:

Update: U.S. Court of Appeals Rejects Industry Challenges to Silica Rule

On December 22, 2017, OSHA's silica rule survived a court challenge and remains in effect, with a three-judge panel rejecting all five objections raised by  industry groups. The U.S. Chamber said it is reviewing the decision, adding that "we continue to believe that OSHA lacks substantial evidence to support its rule."

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