What’s Up With the OSHA Silica Standard?

No one disputes the links between high levels of “respirable silica” and serious lung disorders (like silicosis and cancer). There is also general agreement among stakeholders that realistic silica standards are appropriate and needed. Decades of research have helped both regulators and employers understand the risks — and a variety of industry practices have been developed over the years to mitigate these risks.

OSHA established the first silica standards when the agency was created in 1971 — and there have been very few changes to it until late 2016, when OSHA released its long-anticipated update. The OSHA Fact Sheets for the construction industry and everyone else that were issued in 2016 can provide a helpful primer for readers who need more background.

Even though implementation schedules were unusually generous (for OSHA), giving employers 3-5 years to comply, there was immediate pushback from a range of stakeholders about the new rules. Some questioned the possibility of meeting the new standard entirely, and others believed that the additional provisions limited the flexibility that employers had previously enjoyed to reduce airborne silica levels in ways not specified.

Before the 2016 update, the standard was geared to specific industries, and specified permissible exposure limits (PELs) ranging from 100 to 250 micrograms per cubic meter of air over eight hours. The 2016 update reduced the PEL to 50 micrograms across all sectors, and established detailed standards and mitigation tools for general industry and maritime work and the construction industry. One of the initial objections concerned the rule’s Table 1 guidelines, which specified exposure control methods. Many found it limiting, unwieldy, and lacking any provision for finding “alternative routes” to compliance.

In addition, the 2016 update required all employers to monitor employee exposure and provide medical examinations every three years for all workers wearing a respirator “for at least 30 days” a year.

Some industry leaders and trade associations argued that OSHA hadn’t shown sufficient evidence that reducing the exposure limit from 100 to 50 micrograms had any significant health benefits. Also, the “monitoring” requirement — which included air sampling, medical surveillance, lab work, and analysis fees — was expensive.

OSHA had originally estimated that the 2016 update would cost the industry about $659 million per year, but others who evaluated the economic impact of the new rules argued that the impact would be closer to $4.9 billion per year, with $3.9 billion of that amount associated with direct expenditures for monitoring equipment and respirators.

In mid-August, OSHA published a Request for Information (RFI) in the Federal Register, for the purpose of gathering data and other information from industry about the effectiveness of work practice control methods not currently included in Table 1, as well as information about the “tasks and equipment” involved in the development of effective work practice control methods.

Many believe that the RFI is a very good sign that some aspects the standard will be revised in the near future — and hopefully become more realistic and attainable for employers.

Feel free to contact me if you have any questions about how the evolving silica standards could impact your operations in the months ahead.

About the Author: James Laboe

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