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Silica Dust Protection - Are you safe?

Travelling near Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, one might visit Hawks Nest State Park.  A historical marker at the park reminds us of one of the worst industrial disasters in American history. It reads: 

"Construction of nearby tunnel, diverting waters of New River through Gauley Mt for hydroelectric power, resulted in state's worst industrial disaster. Silica rock dust caused 109 admitted deaths in mostly black, migrant underground work force of 3,000. Congressional hearing placed toll at 476 for 1930-35. Tragedy brought recognition of acute silicosis as occupational lung disease and compensation legislation to protect workers."

Photo from West Virginia State Archives

The workers were not given any masks or breathing equipment to use while mining, although management wore such equipment during inspection visits. As a result of the exposure to silica dust, many workers developed silicosis, a debilitating lung disease. A large number of the workers eventually died from silicosis, in some cases as quickly as within a year. 

The Industrial Health Foundation was founded in response to this disaster and ever since then responsible employers have been protecting workers from harmful exposure to respirable crystalline silica for years, using widely-available equipment that controls dust with water or a vacuum system. About 2.3 million workers are exposed to respirable crystalline silica in their workplaces, including 2 million construction workers who drill, cut, crush, or grind silica-containing materials such as concrete and stone, and 300,000 workers in general industry operations such as brick manufacturing, foundries, and hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking. Sources and references here.

Photo from Safety + Health Magazine

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has issued a final rule to curb lung cancer, silicosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and kidney disease in America's workers by limiting their exposure to respirable crystalline silica. The rule is comprised of two standards, one for Construction and one for General Industry and Maritime.

OSHA estimates that the rule will save over 600 lives and prevent more than 900 new cases of silicosis each year, once its effects are fully realized. The Final Rule is projected to provide net benefits of about $7.7 billion, annually.

OSHA's Final Rule To Protect Workers From Exposure To Respirable Crystalline Silica

What Does The New Silica Rule Mean For You?

Employers Can Either Use A Control Method Laid Out In Table 1* Of The Construction Standard, Or They Can Measure Workers’ Exposure To Silica And Independently Decide Which Dust Controls Work Best To Limit Exposures To The Permissible Exposure Level (PEL) In Their Workplaces.

Compliance Schedule:

  • Construction: June 23, 2017
  • General Industry And Maritime: June 23, 2018
  • Hydraulic Fracturing: June 23, 2018

The Standards Necessary Requirements:

  • 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.
  • Designate A Competent Person To Implement The Written Exposure Control Plan.
  • Restrict 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 And Ways To Limit Exposure.
  • Keep Records Of Workers’ Silica Exposure And Medical Exams.

Exposure Control Specifications:

Measure The Amount Of Silica That Workers Are Exposed To If It May Be At Or Above An Action Level Of 25 Μg/M3 (Micrograms Of Silica Per Cubic Meter Of Air), Averaged Over An Eight Hour Day.

  • Protect Workers From Respirable Crystalline Silica Exposures Above The Permissible Exposure Limit Of 50 Μg/M3, Averaged Over An Eight-Hour Day.

Where the Standard Does Not Apply:

The standard does not apply where exposure will remain low under any foreseeable condition; for example, when only performing tasks such as mixing mortar; pouring concrete footers, slab foundation and foundation walls; and removing concrete form work.

Additional information on OSHA’s silica rule can be found at www.osha.gov/silica.
To locate the OSHA On-site Consultation Program nearest you, call 1-800-321-OSHA (6742).

OSHA Silica Exposure Calculator

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