Silica Dust and Worker Safety: Understanding OSHA’s Silica Standard

June 5, 2019

What is silica and silica dust?

Crystalline silica is a mineral commonly found in natural materials like sand, rock and stone. It can also be found in man-made materials like concrete, tile, brick and mortar. When workers cut or drill into materials that contain silica, tiny dust particles are created. (The technical name for this dust is respirable crystalline silica).

Although silica dust may look like ordinary dust, it’s much smaller (about 100 times smaller than sand granules) and much more dangerous. Silica dust is a carcinogen. Over time, breathing this dust can cause the formation of scar tissue in the lungs, which reduces the body’s ability to take in oxygen. Breathing this dust can also cause silicosis, lung cancer, COPD, kidney disease, and certain autoimmune disorders.

What is silicosis?

Employees exposed to silica are at risk for developing silicosis. Depending on the severity and length of an employee’s exposure, he or she may develop one of three silicosis types:

Chronic or Classic Silicosis—Occurs after 15 to 20 years of moderate to low exposure. Initially, the symptoms may not be obvious. As the disease progresses, workers experience fatigue, extreme shortness of breath, chest pain and respiratory failure.

Accelerated Silicosis—Occurs after 5 to 10 years of high exposure. Symptoms include severe shortness of breath, weakness and weight loss.

Acute Silicosis—Occurs after only a few months or up to two years following extremely high exposure. Symptoms include disabling shortness of breath, weakness and weight loss. This form of silicosis is often fatal.

Between 3,600 and 7,300 new cases of silicosis are diagnosed in the U.S. every year, but experts believe these figures are much lower than actual occurrences because silicosis is so often overlooked or misdiagnosed. It’s important to note that all forms of silicosis are permanent and irreversible. It’s also worth noting that silicosis is 100% preventable, given the proper safety measures.

Who is at risk for breathing in silica dust?

According to OSHA, silica exposure is a major threat for roughly two million American workers, including more than 100,000 employees in particularly high-risk jobs. While silica dust is present in a variety of workplaces, workers in construction, manufacturing, and mining may encounter the worst exposures. Employers are now obligated to protect their workers; failure to do so could lead to significant workplace fines.

What is OSHA’s silica standard?

After decades of worker deaths and illnesses, OSHA adopted a comprehensive silica standard. Today there are one set of guidelines for construction firms and another set for general industry/maritime companies. These guidelines have established an 8-hour, time-weighted, average permissible exposure limit (PEL) to silica. The guidelines also include regulations for product substitution, engineering controls, respiratory protection, medical screening and surveillance. These rules became enforceable in 2017.

How should employers comply with OSHA’s silica standard?

The first step is to determine if the standard applies to your company and the types of work it performs. Companies that work with masonry saws, grinders, drills, jackhammers, handheld powered chipping tools, vehicle-mounted drilling rigs, milling equipment, crushing machines, and heavy demolition equipment are all impacted. If any of these items are a part of your operations, you have two options for compliance. You can either adopt:

  1. OSHA’s specified exposure control methods; or
  2. Alternative exposure control methods.

Employers who choose OSHA’s specified exposure controls must “fully and properly” implement protections for the tasks or equipment listed in Table 1 of the standard. Employers who follow this method do not have to assess employees’ exposure levels or keep employee exposures at or below the permissible exposure limit (PEL).

On the other hand, employers who opt to follow “alternative exposure control methods” must do the following:

  • Establish and implement a written exposure control plan that identifies tasks that involve exposure and methods used to protect workers, including procedures to restrict access to work areas where high exposures may occur.
  • Restrict housekeeping practices that expose workers to silica where feasible alternatives are available.
  • Offer medical exams—including chest X-rays and lung function tests—every three years for workers who are required by the standard to wear a respirator for 30 or more days per year.
  • Train workers on work operations that result in silica exposure, as well as on ways to limit exposure.
  • Keep records of workers’ silica exposure and medical exams.
  • Designate a competent person to implement the written exposure control plan.

How can employers train workers on silica safety, in compliance with the standard?

Acceptable forms of training may include hands-on training, videos, slide presentations, classroom instruction, informal discussions during safety meetings, written materials, or any combination of these methods. However, to ensure that employees comprehend the material presented during training, it is critical that trainees have the opportunity to ask questions and receive answers if they do not fully understand the material presented to them.

How can small businesses comply with the silica standard?

If your small business has concerns about how to comply with OSHA’s silica standard, you can find industry-specific resources—including guides for small business owners—on OSHA’s website. These are divided into guides for construction firms and general industry/maritime. Construction companies can further access helpful information in OSHA’s “FAQs for the Construction Industry,” “Fact Sheets for Construction” and a video entitled “Controlling Silica Dust in Construction.” OSHA’s PowerPoint presentation, “Sample Training PowerPoint for Construction,” is a good tool for sharing silica safety information with colleagues.

The LHSFNA also provides these supplemental answers to frequently asked questions regarding silica compliance.

How often are companies cited for silica violations, and what kinds of penalties are they facing?

Since the new rule became enforceable in 2017, dozens of significant violations have been reported.

According to the Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund of North America, the most common silica violations (using data from the period of October of 2017 through May of 2018) include the following:

  • 53 Exposure assessment citations
  • 51 Specified exposure control method citations
  • 32 Written exposure control plan citations
  • 12 Communication of silica hazards citations
  • 9 Employee information and training citations