Facts about the New Silica Standard

In March of this year, Federal OSHA published two comprehensive standards on the occupational exposures to respirable crystalline silica; one for construction (29 CFR1926.1153) and one for general industry and maritime (29 CFR1910.1053).  The federal standard is to take effect on June 23, 2016, assuming it moves forward.  The standard faces substantial objections primarily from the construction industry.  Assuming everything continues on track, construction employers are given one year in which to comply and everyone else two years, although there are provisions in the standard which have staggered compliance dates of up to five years.

The silica standard is performance oriented based on the Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL), not significantly different than other hazardous substance standards.  In the general industry and maritime standard, employers are not subject to the requirements of the standard as long as they have objective air sampling data which demonstrates that worker exposures will remain below 25 ug/m3 as an 8-hour, time-weighted average concentration.  The construction standard is similarly exempted “under any foreseeable condition.”

The new federal OSHA PEL for respirable silica is set at 50 ug/m3 .  The current Cal/OSHA PEL for respirable silica is 100 ug/m3.  Cal/OSHA also has PELs for other forms of silica including respirable Cristobalite as 50 ug/m3, respirable Tridymite as 50 ug/m3, and respirable Tripoli as 100 ug/m3.  Lastly, Cal/OSHA has a PEL for total silica which is 300 ug/m3.  Based on statements made at the last Cal/OSHA Advisory Committee meeting held in May 2016, Cal/OSHA will move to adopt all provisions of the Federal OSHA Silica standard so the PELs for all forms of silica will be the same and there will no longer be a PEL for total silica.

Representatives of the construction industry are opposed to the new standard, primarily based on the PEL change which they claim is technologically and economically infeasible.  OSHA believes the standard is feasible for the common construction activities where silica exposure is likely to occur, except for abrasive blasting and tuckpoint grinding as the only exceptions.

Making matters even more interesting, Cal/OSHA has an existing regulation to control exposures from “dust-generating operations on concrete or masonry materials” (8CCR 1530.1) which can be found in the Construction Safety Orders.  The basis for this standard is also to control silica exposures in construction.  It focuses on dust control methods to minimize worker exposures to silica dust along with an employee and supervisor training program.  The regulation has been in place since 2008.  There is no indication that Cal/OSHA will remove this regulation although it may pose some conflict for the California construction trades to comply with both the standards.  This remains unclear at this time and how Cal/OSHA will address any conflict, if there is conflict.

As stated above, aspects of Federal OSHA’s Silica standard mirror other hazardous substance regulations such as requiring a written program, which will include restricted areas, housekeeping requirements and medical monitoring if respirators are worn for more than 30 days per year.  Of particular interest in the construction regulation is the addition of a competent person.  Cal/OSHA has used the competent person requirement in other regulations so it would not be surprising here as well.

What can be expected?  I think the construction industry will continue their fight to oppose the regulation.  Cal/OSHA will have six months to adopt the federal OSHA standard or another standard that is “at least as effective” as the federal OSHA standard.  At the Advisory Committee meeting, there was discussion about a fall target date.

If you believe your workers may be exposed to silica, we encourage you to evaluate the exposure.  Based on the collection of empirical data, you may not need to do any further work, or you can be ahead of the curve and begin establishing a control program for workers.  Let us know how we can assist.