On March 25, 2016, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) issued its final rule on exposure to crystalline silica in the workplace. The final rule is one of the most significant health standards ever issued by the Agency and will have a profound impact on the construction industry generally, and mason contractors specifically.

Construction employers must comply with all requirements of the standard by June 23, 2017, except requirements for laboratory evaluation of exposure samples, which are given until June 23, 2018. Because of the short amount of time to implement the rule, mason contractors should review the standard’s requirements and develop a plan of action for meeting this deadline.

New Requirements

OSHA’s new standard significantly reduces the Permissible Exposure Limit (“PEL”) for crystalline silica and requires construction employers to implement engineering and work practice controls and follow several “ancillary” provisions, such as medical surveillance, a written exposure control plan and housekeeping practices.

More specifically, the new standard sets a PEL of 50 μg/m3 (from the previous PEL of approximately 250 μg/m3) measured as an eight-hour time- weighted average (“TWA”). If workers are exposed to crystalline silica above the new PEL, all construction employers must implement engineering controls to reduce exposures to below that level, before using respiratory protection. All construction employers also must:

  • Establish and implement a written exposure control plan that identifies the tasks that can result in silica exposure, the engineering controls, work practices, and respiratory protection that will be used to protect workers, and the procedures to restrict access to work areas where high exposures may occur.
  • Designate a competent person to implement the written exposure control plan by making frequent and regular inspections of job sites, materials, and equipment.
  • Restrict dry sweeping or dry brushing where such activity could contribute to employee exposure to respirable crystalline silica unless wet sweeping, HEPA-filtered vacuuming or other methods that minimize the likelihood of exposure are not feasible.
  • Offer medical exams at no charge to the worker—including chest X-rays and lung function tests—initially (if not received within the last three years by another employer) and every three years for workers who are required by the standard to wear a respirator for 30 or more days per year.

OSHA also has implemented a unique approach to compliance with the revised PEL and exposure monitoring requirements for construction employers. Construction industry employers are exempt from meeting the PEL and performing exposure monitoring to crystalline silica if they comply with the specific engineering controls, work practices and respirator use discussed outlined in “Table 1.” Table 1 identifies 18 construction tasks that could generate exposures to respirable crystalline silica and for each task, specifies engineering controls, work practices, and respiratory protection to protect workers. The identified “Table 1” tasks include the use of the following tools of particular importance to masonry contractors:

  • Stationary masonry saws
  • Handheld power saws (any blade diameter)
  • Handheld power saws for cutting fiber-cement board (with blade diameter of 8 inches or less)
  • Handheld and stand-mounted drills (including impact and rotary hammer drills)
  • Jackhammers and handheld powered chipping tools
  • Handheld grinders for mortar removal (i.e., tuckpointing)
  • Handheld grinders for uses other than mortar removal

Training is another key requirement under the new standard. Construction employers are required to communicate and train employees on the hazards associated with crystalline silica under the Hazard Communication Standard and ensure that each employee has access to labels on containers of crystalline silica and safety data sheets. Training must address the hazards of cancer, lung effects, immune system effects, and kidney effects from exposure to respirable silica.

Plan of Action

Because of the significant costs and rigorous requirements of the new standard, employers should review their silica program now and develop a timeline for meeting the compliance obligations under the new standard. A proposed plan of action should consider the following:

  • Review any existing equipment to determine whether it can be retrofitted with local exhaust ventilation (e.g., vacuums), a water delivery system or some other control, or whether new equipment will need to be found and purchased.
  • Coordinate with an occupational health medical partner (or find one if you do not already have a partner in place) to assist you in meeting the medical examination requirements.
  • Review Table 1 tasks and determine if your operations can fit neatly within the enumerated tasks, and if adoption of Table 1 is feasible, paying close attention to the work practice controls discussed.
  • Draft your written exposure control plan and any necessary forms that will be used for each project after you have determined the engineering controls, work practice controls and respirators that you need to implement.
  • Designate your competent person(s) to implement the written exposure control plan and consider whether they need additional training on the hazards of silica, identifying silica exposure and inspecting for compliance.
  • Revise your safety manual to reflect the new requirements.
  • Update your training materials and ensure that you have covered the necessary components of the rule and have methods in place for documenting the knowledge and understanding of employees.

To help contractors and MCAA members to comply with the new rule, the MCAA has developed a silica “train-the-trainer” program, along with a template Written Exposure Control Plan.

Ready or not, OSHA’s silica standard is here and contractors must begin taking steps to ensure full compliance with the new requirements.

Words: Nickole Winnett, Principal at Jackson Lewis P.C. / Bradford Hammock, Principal at Jackson Lewis P.C