Controlling Silica Dust with Vacuum-Equipped Tools

On June 23, 2016 Fed OSHA adopted a new silica standard that reduced the permissible exposure limit (PEL) for respirable crystalline silica to 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air, averaged over an 8-hour shift.  Compliance for the new standard in the construction industry is scheduled for June 23, 2017.  OSHA issued this final rule to curb chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, kidney disease, lung cancer, and silicosis in America’s workers by limiting their exposure to respirable crystalline silica.

Employers are already required to use engineering controls (e.g., water or ventilation) to limit worker exposure to the PEL as well as limit worker access to high exposure areas; implement administrative controls (i.e. develop a written exposure control plan, offer medical exams to highly exposed workers, and train workers on silica risks and how to limit exposures); and provide PPE. In addition, medical exams must be provided to monitor highly exposed workers and gives them information about their lung health.  Responsible employers protect construction workers who crush, cut, drill, or grind silica-containing materials such as concrete and stone from harmful exposure to respirable crystalline silica, using widely-available equipment that controls dust with water or a vacuum system.

In August 2016, Cal/OSHA adopted the Fed OSHA standard, even though they have had a silica standard since 2008.  Despite the adoption of the new standard, the construction industry in California objected that the new standard prevents them from using tools that are widely-accepted here and compliant with the 2008 silica standard.  Fed-OSHA didn’t include the use of vacuum controls in its standard.  The Feds “disfavor” the use of vacuums to control dust since they believe the use of water methods to control dust is more effective (both in cost and in worker health).  However, because of these two conflicting standards, new data is emerging from power tool manufacturers that demonstrate its tools achieved levels below nine micrograms of silica per cubic meter of air, averaged over an 8-hour workday.  Cal/OSHA is currently in the process of finding a way to amend the new Cal/OSHA silica standard so that it will reflect and address all concerns of conflict between the federal and existing California standards, and recognition of the effective technology with regards to local exhaust ventilation systems.  As of now, we are starting to see changes to Table 1 in the new silica standard, but how Cal/OSHA will deal with compliance issues between the two standards remains unclear.