Crystalline Silica Safety Awareness: Employer Information
A construction site is a perpetually dusty place. It's easy to get used to working in clouds of the stuff, to the point where it seems harmless.
Certainly, there are other, more present workplace hazards that a construction company needs to worry about. However, OSHA's silica regulations aren't optional.
Are you compliant with the current OSHA silica standards? Do you know how to be?
What is Silica?
As an employer subject to OSHA or MSHA, the more relevant question is "What is respirable crystalline silica?"
Silica in general, also known as silicon dioxide, is a very common mineral found in soil, sand, granite, concrete, and most rocks on earth. The crystalline form is better known as quartz.
In its natural form, silica is harmless. Even relatively small particles, like the silica sand at a golf course, aren't considered an active hazard.
Silica is typically only bad for you as crystalline silica dust or silica powder. In regulations, you'll see this called Respirable Crystalline Silica (RCS).
Why Is Silica Exposure Bad For You?
Exposure to silica dust can cause multiple forms of lung disease.
Respirable crystalline silica particles are 100 times smaller (or more) than ordinary beach sand. Particles that small can be inhaled deep down in your lungs where they can't be coughed out again.
Silicosis is the fastest type of lung disease caused by silica. It's when the silica dust causes scar tissue to form in your lungs. That reduces the lungs' ability to take in oxygen, which can be disabling or even fatal. The longer the exposure, the more severe the impairment.
Silicosis starts after only a few months of high exposure.
There's no cure.
Crystalline silica is also classified as a carcinogen, increasing your odds of getting lung cancer. Exposure to silica dust can cause chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis.
Any Other Side Effects of Silica?
Silicosis puts you at higher risk of contracting tuberculosis.
There is also evidence that silica dust exposure can set off an immune reaction that damages other tissues, leading to kidney failure, rheumatoid arthritis, and other autoimmune conditions.
Which Workers Are At Risk for Silica Exposure?
Any task that involves cutting, breaking, grinding, abrading or drilling into concrete, mortar, stone, asphalt, brick, or artificial stone may cause overexposure to respirable crystalline silica particles.
There are over 2 million US workers at risk of silica exposure every year. Silica exposure is a problem across multiple industries, including maritime, manufacturing, and hydraulic fracturing, but over 80% of workers at risk are in the construction industry.
An individual worker's risk depends on their job responsibilities and how much time they spend at certain tasks. For the construction industry, high-risk exposure tasks include (but aren't limited to):
- Using masonry saws, grinders, drills, jackhammers, and chipping tools
- Operating crushing machines
- Operating vehicle-mounted drilling rigs
- Dry sweeping or pressurized air blowing of concrete or sand dust
- Demolishing concrete and masonry structures
- Abrasive blasting or sandblasting
Where Do You Find Silica Exposure Safety Regulations?
US silica regulations differ a bit by industry.
Anyone who's regulated by the Mining Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) has to follow their standards.
OSHA specifies a special silica standard for the construction industry under 29 CFR 1926.1153.
Pretty much everyone else, including the maritime industry, falls under §1910.1053.
How Do Construction Employers Comply With OSHA's Silica Regulations?
The construction industry's silica standard requires relevant employers to:
- Implement exposure control methods, either "Table 1" or alternate (see below)
- Establish and implement a written exposure control plan for silica
- Designate a competent person to implement and enforce the written exposure control plan
- Restrict housekeeping practices that expose workers to silica where feasible alternatives are available
- Offer medical exams (including chest x-rays and lung function tests) every 3 years for any workers who are required by the standard to wear a respirator 30 days a year or more
- Train workers on silica exposure and control methods
- Keep records of exposure measurements, objective data, and medical exams
What is OSHA Silica Table 1?
In an effort to make it easier for small construction companies to comply with the silica standard, they created an alternative for measuring and monitoring Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs).
Table 1 under §1926.1153 specifies exposure control methods required for 18 common construction tasks associated with high silica dust exposure.
If you "fully and properly implement" all the engineering controls, work practices, and respiratory protection in Silica Table 1, then you don't need to worry about determining PELs.
Look at it this way: no matter what, you have to implement exposure control methods for silica. The Table 1 method is a little like OSHA doing your homework for you.
The activities they specify are high-risk, so by following Silica Table 1, you're accepting OSHA's "homework" that those activities will exceed the PEL. Similarly, you're also accepting OSHA's "homework" on which methods will reduce exposure to permissible limits.
OSHA even goes beyond the information in Silica Table 1 by providing many resources to help you implement it.
What Is The "Alternative" Exposure Control Method for Silica?
In this context, "alternative" doesn't mean unconventional or out there – in fact, it's kind of the opposite. Because if following OSHA's Silica Table 1 is like copying off OSHA's homework, then the "alternative" is doing the work yourself, longhand.
Essentially, the alternative to Table 1 is doing the normal steps for a respirable hazard, which means:
- Determining the amount of silica that workers are exposed to if it is (or may reasonably be expected to be), at or above the action level of 25 μg/m3 (that's micrograms of silica per cubic meter of air), averaged over an 8-hour day
- Protecting workers from respirable crystalline silica exposures above the PEL of 50 μg/m3 (micrograms of silica per cubic meter of air), as an 8-hour time-weighted average (TWA) by
- Using dust controls and safer work methods to protect workers from silica exposures above the PEL, and
- Prividing respirators when dust controls and safer work methods can't keep exposure below the PEL.
Table 1 just saves you from initial and ongoing exposure measurements.
How Do I Train My Workers on OSHA's Silica Regulation?
Providing your workers with crystalline silica safety awareness is one of the seven requirements that employers must meet under the construction silica standard.
It's not just a regulatory checkbox – your employees won't protect themselves properly if they don't know the risk they're facing. Proper safety training gives them both the reason to follow and the tools to comply with OSHA's requirements. That's important, because if they don't follow the rules, OSHA won't fine them – they'll fine you.
But just as the "long way" for exposure control methods can be a strain on a small business, so can the training requirement. OSHA's Small Entity Compliance Guide for silica provides a list of what you need to include in silica training, and it's long. Plus, you have to make it stick.
This is where we can help – we've already done the homework on silica training for you.
Our online DEWALT respirable crystalline silica safety awareness training is comprehensive and effective. We've covered all the bases for you, and the quizzes and tests throughout the course will help your employees retain what they've learned. They won't need to sit around zoned out in a "classroom" together; they can take the course when they're feeling fresh, at their own pace.
That's true of all our safety training courses, many of which have Spanish-language versions. We're an OSHA-authorized provider that partners with small businesses like yours to provide bulk rates, a free LMS for managing employee training, and more! Learn more about our solutions for employers today.