Silica dust photo courtesy of Creative Commons License

A highly anticipated ruling on silica dust exposure was announced today by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). As Replacement Contractor's sister site, Remodeling, has reported, this controversial ruling on how to protect workers who have been exposed to respirable crystalline silica dust will have a major impact on contractors and remodelers that use materials that create silica dust, such as when they cut concrete roof tiles and drywall.

OSHA's topic sheet says exposure to silica dust can lead to many serious illnesses including lung cancer and kidney disease.

Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez in a press release cited the new ruling as something that will save lives and “enable workers to earn a living without sacrificing their health.” The Department of Labor estimates that the new ruling will save roughly 600 lives annual and prevent more than 900 new cases of silicosis, an incurable disease caused by exposure to silica dust, another Remodeling report says.

The new ruling will limit the exposure of silica to 50 micrograms per cubic meter per eight-hour work shift, an 80% cut from the original 250 micrograms of silica exposure now allowed. The new ruling will also require employers to limit worker exposure to silica by providing respiratory protection and using engineering controls—water, vacuum dust collection, isolation of dusty areas, or ventilation— at the work site to decrease exposure.

Furthermore, employers will be required to provide medical exams to highly exposed workers, ensure that there is sufficient time to meet the requirements on a job site with silica exposure present, and offer medical surveillance to employees exposed to silica between 50 micrograms and 25 micrograms per cubic meter.

The final rule will take effect 90 days after publication--expected Friday, March 25--in the Federal Register. Employers have until June 23, 2017, to comply with the new requirements if they are covered by the construction standard and will have until June 23, 2018, if they are covered by the general industry or maritime standard.

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 Construction Industry Safety Coalition (CISC), a leading group fighting the rule, said it “contains some of the same problematic provisions that the CISC previously identified and shared with the agency.”

The National Association of Home Builders conceded that the agency made some changes to the rule, but said it “remains concerned that the final rule is not technological and economically feasible for the home building industry.”

Before the rule was published, OSHA held hearings and sought out industry experts for input into the final ruling. Yet, industry experts said they felt this was futile, as they said OSHA has simply created provisions that were proposed initially, despite industry associations concerns.

In contrast, North America’s Building Trades Unions said it is “pleased OSHA has issued the final silica standard. We believe that the agency has been diligent in its efforts to hear and consider all stakeholder input, and done a great job in getting the rule out.”

What do you make of this new OSHA ruling? How will the new rule on silica impact your business?

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