New guidelines being proposed on exposure to toxic silica
Safety costs will soar for construction companies if a proposed Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulation requiring tighter limits on toxic silica exposure goes into effect. According to OSHA, inhalation of crystalline silica particles puts workers at risk for a variety of diseases, including silicosis, lung cancer, kidney disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. OSHA states that each year, crystalline silica kills hundreds of the thousands of employees it impacts. Under the new rule, employers would be required to sharply limit job-site exposure to silica.
Change is long time coming
The proposed rule would lower permissible exposure levels (PELs) by up to 80 percent. In addition, contractors must implement engineering and administrative controls that far exceed current standards. In certain industries, OSHA required on-site monitoring systems, enhanced training, new medical examinations and stricter recordkeeping protocols. Since this would be the first change to OSHA’s silica exposure standards in 40 years, contractors may scramble to comply with more stringent protocols.
Tasks that can cause silica to become airborne include cutting or grinding concrete, large-scale excavation and finishing drywall. Many large contractors already follow certain procedures when dealing with concrete and masonry operations: wetting work sites to limit silica dispersal, isolating or enclosing operations, or utilizing filters and tool-mounted vacuums to limit inhalation risks. Conversely, small-to-midsize contractors rely more on personal protective equipment such as personal respirators and dusk masks, which cost less. Risk management consultants predict small-to-midsize construction contractors whose workers perform these tasks will be more deeply impacted by costs associated with these standards if they pass.
Impact on the industry
OSHA predicts these more rigorous standards will impact up to 60 percent of all US construction firms and cost approximately $1,242 per company per year to implement and comply with stricter protocols. OSHA predicts companies with fewer than 20 employees will spend about $550 annually for compliance. The construction industry did not take the release of this sweeping regulatory change in September without mounting a vigorous dissent. This outpouring of opposition from construction industry trade groups and private construction contractors forced OSHA to extend the proposed comments deadline by 45 days.
We’ll continue to update you on this important topic. However, if you have questions, OSHA offers an on-site Consultation Program providing free and confidential advice to small businesses with fewer than 250 employees at a site (and no more than 500 employees nationwide). OSHA consultants can help your company identify and correct workplace hazards and assist with new regulation compliance. These consultative services differ from their enforcement division and never result in penalties or citations as long as the company corrects deficiencies once found. Visit OSHA’s website or call 1-800-321-OSHA (6742) to learn more about OSHA’s consultative services.