Silicosis and OSHA Standards
As you may recall in my last blog, I spoke of a tragic story out of West Virginia. It was the Hawk’s Nest Industrial Incident and the repercussions on the people of that time in the 1930s. Up to date each year illness continues takes the lives of thousands of workers. One of these illness still present is caused by a deadly dust – crystalline silica which can cause Silicosis. It is approximated that 2.3 million people in the U.S. are exposed to silica at work. Over time workers have come to count on OSHA to adopt standards to be enforced in the workplace. These standards aid in the reduction of the risks to workers from contracting illness or injury in the workplace.
Let’s review what crystalline silica is. Crystalline silica is an important industrial material found largely in the earth’s crust and is commonly found in the likes of sand, stone, rock, concrete, brick, block, and mortar. It is found in materials that we see every day in the construction of roads, buildings, and sidewalks. Silica dust occurs in the workplace when operations involve cutting, sawing, drilling, and crushing of concrete, brick, block, rock, and stone. It can also be found among operations that use sand products, such as glass manufacturing, foundries, sand blasting, and hydraulic fracturing.
Crystalline silica (respirable) is hazardous to workers who inhale small particles, which puts a worker at risk of developing silica-related diseases that can be serious. Even deadly. Tiny as these particles are they can be easily inhaled and get deep into workers lungs, which then causes silicosis, an irreversible, incurable, and fatal lung disease. There are other repercussions from exposure to silica, workers are at risk for lung cancer, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), and kidney disease.
Silica Exposure Limits
OSHA and the workforce has known about the dangers of silica for a long time. As a matter of fact more than 80 years ago, U.S. Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins brought experts and stakeholders together to figure out ways to safeguard labors from silica. OSHA’s current PEL’s (permissible exposure limits) for silica are over 40 years old. There has been proof that shows the current exposure limits do not protect workers. For instance silica exposure has been proven to cause lung cancer and kidney disease at the current PEL’s.
In efforts to protect workers from the dangers of crystalline silica, OSHA has finalized a ruling and put in place standards for silica. One for general industry and maritime, and the other for construction. OSHA has taken the time to gather information through many venues getting them to the point of establishing the final rule for silica. They have accomplished this through extensive review of scientific evidence from current industry standards, public outreach efforts, weeks of public hearings, and a period in which they took comments from the public. By doing this the ruling provides reasonable, inexpensive and flexible strategies for employers to implement protection for their workers. It is estimated that this ruling will save the lives of 600 or more workers each year and once fully implemented prevent more than 900 cases of Silicosis each year.
Just how will the rule protect workers? The rule reduces the volume of silica dust that a worker can be exposed to (PEL equation can be found here). Employers will have to implement controls and practices that reduce workers’ exposure to the silica dust. Employers will also have to safeguard that silica dust is wetted down or vacuumed up in dust collectors to prevent workers from breathing it in. Many employers have already been implementing measures to protect their workers from silica.
In brief under the new rule employers are required to:
- limit access to high exposure areas
- provide training
- provide respiratory protection (if controls are not enough to limit exposure)
- provide written exposure control plans
- measure exposures
Employers are also required under this ruling to offer medical examinations to workers that are considered to be highly exposed to silica dust.
OSHA will help employers comply with the rule to protect their workers by providing flexibility to help employers protect workers from silica exposure. They have given from one to five years to get the correct protections in place. OSHA has staggered compliance dates to give sufficient time to meet the requirements of this rule.
There are many industries affected by this new rule, are you one of them?
Here are the industries projected to be affected according to OSHA:
- Glass manufacturing
- Pottery products
- Structural clay products
- Concrete products
- Dental laboratories
- Paintings and coatings
- Jewelry production
- Refractory products
- Ready-mix concrete
- Cut stone and stone products
- Abrasive blasting
- Refractory furnace installation and repair
- Railroad transportation
- Oil and gas operations
If specifications are followed correctly employers can be confident that they are providing workers with the necessary level of protection. What are these specifications? Stay tuned for part 3 of this silica blog series where I will detail the Crystalline Silica Rule.
More information can be found here: https://www.osha.gov/silica/index.html