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June 21, 2019

A Quick Guide to OSHA’s Silica Standards

In case you weren’t aware, OSHA has implemented new regulations regarding the usage of crystalline silica by U.S.-based employers operating in the General and Maritime industries. The new rules have been in effect since June 23rd, 2018 and are designed to protect workers from the hazards of respirable silica dust. The goal is to help reduce the incidence of work-related illnesses that can be caused by silica and which have historically affected many workers on construction and demolition crews. Failure to comply with these regulations can lead to your company being audited by inspectors and fined by regulatory authorities.

The following is a quick guide to help you gain a basic understanding of OSHA’s new silica standards and how you can stay in compliance to avoid problems.

Understanding How Silica Dust is Generated

The vast majority of silicon dioxide produced in the world today is used in the construction industry, winding up in cement, steel, and ceramic products that are used for general building and flatwork – constructing and renovating patios, walkways, sidewalks, and foundations. When these materials are abraded, cut, or fractured, they can generate a fine, respirable silica dust that is known to cause health complications, including irreparable lung damage.

Wearing safety gear like goggles and a respirator is usually the first line of defense against silica inhalation. However, it’s also common for workers to use a saw-mounted vacuum shroud like the DustBuddie for Flatwork from Dustless Tools to remove silica from the air as it is being generated.

Which Companies are Affected by OSHA’s Silica Standards?

The new regulations came alongside an expansion of the scope of their applicability, with the rules now applying to a broad range of companies in the general construction and maritime industries. Generally, if your company participates in any activity that generates silica dust — as defined in OSHA’s Table 1, you could be fined for not adhering to the rules. Thus, researching and reviewing these regulations is a particularly important step for general contractors and small subcontractors, who might be relatively naïve about OSHA’s new requirements.

How to Ensure Compliance

First, you can start by creating a comprehensive list of any actions that your employees participate in which could lead to the production of silica dust. This would include any sawing, crushing, manufacturing, bulk loading/unloading, or transporting of materials that contain silica, or using any machinery that abrades, handles, or demolishes silica-containing materials. Once you’ve identified all of the opportunities for silica dust generation, it’s time to monitor the air quality in environments where those activities are taking place.

The OSHA guidelines state that the air cannot contain more than 25 micrograms of silica per m3 of air when averaged out over the span of an eight-hour workday. This limit is called the “maximum activity level for silica exposure.” There is another metric known as the “maximum permissible exposure limit”, which is set at 50 micrograms of silica per m3 of air. In general, if you’re getting any readings that average out to more than 50µg/m3 over an eight-hour period, you might need to take steps to reduce the presence of silica dust at your job sites.

Once you’ve recorded your readings, you should document your findings so that you can make your assessment available to OSHA inspectors upon request. If you find that your employees are being exposed to unsafe levels of silica dust, you may need to consult with a firm that specializes in construction workplace safety to develop a comprehensive dust control compliance strategy, which will serve as part of your overall exposure control plan.

How Much Can OSHA Fine a Company for Non-Compliance?

The maximum amount that OSHA can fine a company within a single citation is set at $12,675. However, they can fine you for multiple violations on the same site, so that number could be multiplied if there are several areas of your job sites that are in violation of the new silica safety standards. Ultimately, the overall maximum that a company can be fined at one site adds up to a whopping $126,749 and that amount would compound daily for every day that it goes unpaid.

Using Mist Machines, Masks, Shrouds, and Wet Process to Minimize Dust Generation

In conclusion, the only way to stay in compliance with OSHA’s regulations is to ensure that the presence of airborne silica dust at your job sites does not exceed the limits of 25-50 µg/m3, which OSHA has set for all companies operating in the general construction and maritime industries. Some companies have begun using atomized misting machines to capture dust and bring it to the ground. While masks, respirators, and equipment shrouds can protect workers from direct exposure, they might not be as effective at reducing silica levels in the way that wet processes and misting machines do.


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