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The United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has recently released its final rule for new standards concerning crystalline silica exposure in the workplace.  This rule has implications for employers in construction, general industry, and the maritime industry.  The new rule is intended to protect workers from high levels of crystalline silica inhalation, which can lead to respiratory illnesses such as silicosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and lung cancer.

Crystalline silica, commonly known as quartz, is found in a variety of products, including concrete, brick, abrasive media, and clays.  These materials present a hazard when they are cut, ground, or when fine dusts are stirred up and become airborne.  “Respirable” sized particles, those that are fine enough to be inhaled deep into the lungs, pose the most risk.

The new rule, which went into effect on June 23, 2016, consists of two standards, one for construction and one for both general industry and maritime.  The construction industry has one year after the effective date to comply with the requirements in the new rule.  General industry and maritime have until June 23, 2018 to comply with all obligations of the standard, with the exception of the action level trigger for medical surveillance.  These employers are required to offer medical examinations to employees exposed at or above the action level for 30 or more days per year beginning on June 23, 2020.

The key provisions of the new rule include:

  • Reduction of the Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL), as an 8-hour time weighed average, to 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air (µg/m3),
  • Establishes an action level of 25 µg/m3,
  • Requiring, under certain circumstances, an exposure assessment for employees who may be exposed at or above the action level,
  • Requires the employer to provide medical surveillance to employees exposed at or above the action level for 30 or more days per year,
  • Requirements for administrative and engineering controls such as limiting worker access to high exposure areas, installing ventilation systems to remove crystalline silica dust from the worker’s breathing zone, and providing respiratory protection and written exposure control plans.

The final rule also outlines acceptable sampling methodologies and analytical methods, and sets standards for laboratories who perform analyses on air samples for crystalline silica.  The burden is placed on the employer to ensure that sampling procedures and laboratory analytical methods are in compliance with the new standard.

Any employer whose employees regularly engage in practices such as cutting or grinding cement or stone, using abrasive media, or disturbing dusts which may contain crystalline silica should evaluate these practices in accordance with the new standard in order to ensure compliance.  Past exposure assessments may not be adequate to ensure compliance with the new standard.

The full text of the final rule can be read by clicking here.