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In March 2016, OSHA issued its long-anticipated final rule on respirable crystalline silica with two separate standards, one for the construction industry and the other for general industry plus maritime. The effective date was June 23, 2016; construction must be in full compliance by September 23, 2017, and general industry and maritime by June 23, 2018.

As the clock continues to tick down to September 23, now is the time for contractors to begin planning their compliance approach. The requirements of the silica standard apply to all occupational exposures to airborne respirable crystalline silica in the construction industry, except where employee exposure would remain very low. 

All construction companies that have employees exposed to silica must fulfill these six duties.
  1. Have a written exposure control plan. Develop and implement a plan that, at a minimum, contains the required site-specific information.
  2. Oversee the plan. Designate a competent person to implement the written exposure control plan.
  3. Restrict housekeeping practices that increase silica exposure. For example, allow dry sweeping only in situations where it will not increase exposure and where wet sweeping, HEPA-filtered vacuuming and other methods that minimize the likelihood of exposure are not feasible.
  4. Offer medical surveillance. The employer must ensure that all medical examinations and procedures required by the silica standard are performed by a physician or other licensed health care professional at no cost to the employee, and at a reasonable time and place, for any employee who will need to wear a respirator for 30 or more days per year.
  5. Communicate hazards and conduct employee training. Employers must include respirable crystalline silica as part of their existing hazard communication program, as required elsewhere by OSHA. This means providing adequate employee access to labels on products containing crystalline silica and their corresponding safety data sheets.
  6. Maintain proper recordkeeping. Employers must keep three separate sets of records: air monitoring data, objective data (air monitoring data from elsewhere, but closely resembling the employer’s current operations) and medical surveillance records.

Contractors can choose to fully comply with specific exposure control methods or implement alternative exposure control methods.

Option One: Full Compliance 

OSHA has published a list (Table 1) of common construction equipment and tasks that are known to generate large quantities of potentially hazardous silica. Some of the items listed include stationary masonry saws, handheld power saws, walk-behind saws, miscellaneous types of drills, jackhammers, grinders, milling/crushing machines and other heavy equipment. 

To the right of each of the listed items in Table 1 are columns pertaining to mandatory “Engineering and Work Practice Control Methods,” (e.g., use saw equipped with integrated water delivery system that continuously feeds water to the blade) and “Required Respiratory Protection and Minimum Assigned Protection Factor (APF).” All respirators have APF classifications, or protection capabilities, assigned to them by OSHA. The larger the number, the greater level of protection expected. The listed item and how many hours per shift the employee will be exposed dictate two things: whether respiratory protection is
required and, if so, what level of respiratory protection is needed.

Employers that choose to implement the control measures specified in Table 1 must do the following.
  • For tasks performed indoors or in enclosed areas, provide a means of exhaust as needed to minimize the accumulation of visible airborne dust.
  • For tasks performed using wet methods, apply water at flow rates sufficient to minimize the release of visible dust.
  • For measures implemented that include an enclosed cab or booth, ensure that the enclosed cab or booth meets the required specifications.
  • In cases where an employee performs more than one of the tasks listed in Table 1 during the course of a shift and the total duration of all tasks combined is more than four hours, the required respiratory protection for each task is the respiratory protection specified for more than four hours per shift. If the total duration of all Table 1 tasks performed is less than four hours, the required respiratory protection for each task is the respiratory protection specified for less than four hours per shift.
The option of complying with Table 1 may sound simple at first and seems to be the obvious choice. However, complications and costs may arise if, for example, a contractor does not own saws that are equipped with an integrated water delivery system.


Option Two: Alternative Exposure Control Methods

For employers that cannot fully comply with the control methods or find that their specific tasks or equipment used are not listed in Table 1, an alternative path to compliance exists (Table 2). The following items are mandatory if Table 1 control measures are not followed:
  • the employer shall ensure that no employee is exposed to an airborne concentration of respirable crystalline silica in excess of the permissible exposure limit (PEL); and
  • the employer shall assess the exposure of each employee who is or may reasonably be expected to be exposed at or above the action level by utilizing either sampled air monitoring data or objective data.
While these alternative control measures give contractors more flexibility, they will need to hire an industrial hygienist to perform monitoring in the absence of objective data. Favorable sampling results (below the action level) from these expensive services may serve as objective monitoring data going forward by limiting the cost to a few initial visits.

The Respirable Crystalline Silica Standard contains an extraordinary amount of new administrative requirements and increased costs in order for affected contractors to comply. In most cases, a methodical approach to budgeting and allocating resources should be considered before implementation. 

Dwayne S. Hartman is vice president and senior loss control consultant at Lockton Companies. For more information, visit lockton.com/construction.

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