OSHA Announces Sweeping Changes in Final Rule on Silica

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The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has released its final rule on occupational exposure to respirable crystalline silica. This is the first time OSHA has updated this rule since 1971. In updating the rule, OSHA has lowered the permissible exposure limit (PEL), as well as included requirements for exposure assessment, methods for controlling exposure, respiratory protection, medical surveillance, hazard communication, and recordkeeping. OSHA presents the rule as two standards, one for general industry and maritime and the other for construction. Both standards are scheduled to go into effect on June 23, 2016. Industries will then have one to five years to meet most requirements.

A known human carcinogen, crystalline silica exists in sand, stone, soil, concrete and other materials. Workers exposed to silica inhale particles that cause diseases such as silicosis and lung cancer. Exposure to silica occurs during cutting, sawing, and crushing of concrete, brick, or rock.

OSHA has lowered the PEL for crystalline silica to 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air averaged during an 8-hour shift. The new PEL is half of the previous limit for general industry and 5 times lower than the previous limit for construction. The rule requires that employers use engineering controls and work practices to restrict worker exposure, bar access to high-exposure sites, supply respiratory protection when required, provide training for employees, and offer medical exams to highly exposed workers.

OSHA estimates the new rule will save more than 600 lives and prevent more than 900 cases of silicosis each year, as well as help protect against lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and kidney disease. OSHA administrator David Michaels said that the annual compliance cost will be about $1,500 for the average employer and less than $600 for employers with fewer than 20 workers. The cost for industry will be more than $1 billion annually, but it will reap benefits of about $7 billion, Michaels said.

However, stakeholders have alleged that the change will be costly and difficult to measure. Jay Timmons, president and chief executive of the National Association of Manufacturers, said that OSHA had vastly underestimated the cost of the rules to businesses, which he said would run into the billions. Brian Turmail, spokesman for the Associated General Contractors of America, said that the technology to get silica levels down to the new standard does not exist.

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