By Philip Casto

Every type of construction contractor is likely to be exposed to some level of silica.

…Workers who use jackhammers to break up concrete.
…carpenters who work with stucco, wall coverings and finishes.
…even electricians who drill into cinderblock walls to install anchors.

The revised OSHA silica rule on occupational exposure to respirable crystalline silica requires putting controls in place to manage it, whether the level of exposure (and the fix) is small or significant. Yet a surprising number of construction contractors, particularly those in specialty areas, may think the rule doesn’t apply to them.

It does.

Crystalline silica is a basic component of the most abundant form of the mineral that comprises sand and rock. It’s generated by various construction activities, such as abrasive blasting, sawing or grinding concrete and the demolition of concrete-containing structures. Even some minor tasks requiring low-level drilling by, say, electricians or plumbers, are a risk and subject to the rule.

Exposure to the dust can, over time, lead to silicosis, a disabling, sometimes fatal lung disease. It can also contribute to lung cancer and end-stage kidney disease. Ultimately, OSHA believes the rule will prevent more than 600 deaths per year and more than 900 new cases of silicosis each year.

OSHA has been applying its new enforcement standards since late last year. Because silica is so pervasive, the rule applies to the entire construction industry, so developing a written plan for exposure control is mandatory even if your exposure is minimal. So is choosing a control methodology – engineering or work practices. And, yes, OSHA’s taking this seriously, with a maximum penalty of $12,934 per violation for non-compliance.

If you’re an employer in the construction industry who hasn’t yet developed your exposure control plan or put your control methodologies in place, you’re unnecessarily increasing your business risk and the health risks of your workers. Here’s what you need to know.

1) Evaluate your exposure; don’t fail to train and document.

A key first step is to understand activities that may involve silica risk. Identifying tasks and tools is part of it, but it’s also important to conduct and/or update air samplings for respirable crystalline silica exposure. Your sampling should be conducted according to OSHA’s published protocols, valid according to their measures, defensible and apply to your current equipment and work practices.

It’s also important to note that medical exams are required for employees who are required to wear respirators for greater than 30 days per year. By documenting everything, you’ll be able to demonstrate to OSHA good faith efforts to comply with the rule.

2) Develop an exposure control plan

Your plan must be written, reviewed and updated annually and kept onsite so that it is available for review. It must contain past air monitoring data as well as job descriptions of employees whose work may result in exposure to silica, along with your job hazard analyses/job safety assessments. Also required is a specific description of how you are mitigating exposure, such as engineering controls, relevant work practices and/or respiratory protections.

A “competent person” must administer the plan. This individual should be trained to recognize current or potential silica-related hazards and authorized to remediate them. The training should ensure this person has the knowledge and ability to carry out the responsibilities that are outlined in the plan.

3) Controlling silica exposure

Construction employers need to use both engineering and work practice controls to control exposures. Contractors can choose from the table method or the air monitoring method for compliance. Many contractors will end up doing some of each method since many work activities are not listed on the table.

For employers who are performing any of the 19 operations that are outlined on the table, air monitoring is not required.

Employers that don’t follow the table method must undertake detailed and focused worker air samplings to ensure permissible exposure levels aren’t being exceeded. Samplings must be repeated every time circumstances change – whether the changes involve people, processes or work practices. If initial samples are elevated, sampling must be repeated until safe levels can be maintained.

Silica exposure isn’t one of those clear and present risks that the construction industry deals with day-in and day-out. It’s more similar to asbestos exposures that contributed to mesothelioma or COPD that emerge years later. That makes it in everyone’s long-term interest to be vigilant in offsetting the risk – just as OSHA intends.

HUB International’s consultants are available to work with you in understanding how to comply with regulatory changes that may impact your risk posture today and in the future.