Industrial Demolition Safety Update: OSHA Protections against Silica

Site SafetyOSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, recently released updated proposals concerning worker exposure to silica. OSHA estimates that 1.85 million American workers are exposed to respirable crystalline silica. Of those, the office estimates 640,000 to have PELs (Permissible Exposure Limits) above the new proposed standards. OSHA is in the process of accepting public comment on the suggested limits.  The National Demolition Association has joined 23 other construction trade alliances in deeming the new limits impractical, difficult to apply and enforce, and harmful for the economy.

Construction and demolition contractors inhale tiny silica crystals while cutting rock, doing foundry work, drilling/cutting concrete, sandblasting, and during various other construction tasks. Crystalline silica is common in soil and rocks. Quartz is one type of crystalline silica. Over time, inhaling crystalline silica can lead to the development of respiratory diseases such as lung cancer, silicosis, and tuberculosis, as well as kidney disease. The silica crystals cause lung scar tissue to develop, which in turn restricts how much oxygen the lungs can take in.

As a leader in Portland industrial demolition, we are actively monitoring the OSHA standards process, since our business would be included in any new regulations. Here’s what OSHA’s proposed PEL limits include:

  • Measure silica levels if they may be above 25 micrograms of silica per cubic meter of air μg/m3, when averaged over an 8-hour workday.
  • Provide respiratory protection for workers who are exposed to levels above 50 μg/m3 over an 8-hour workday.
  • Restrict worker access to areas with silica levels above the PEL of 50 μg/m3.
  • Limit exposure levels with dust controls. For instance, spraying water on the blades of stationary masonry saws can greatly decrease respiratory silica levels.
  • Outfit workers with respirators when dust control measures can’t prevent exposure to the PEL.
  • Provide medical exams for workers who are exposed to the PEL for 30 or more days of the year. The exams may include diagnostics such as x-rays and lung function tests, and they must be provided every three years.
  • Educate workers on what causes silica exposure, and how to minimize their exposure to respiratory crystalline silica.
  • Maintain records of exposure levels and medical exams.

OSHA’s recommendations also provide flexible alternatives for construction tasks. By following these alternatives, businesses can avoid having to measure silica levels. Vacuum dust collection systems, water delivery systems, and other dust minimization tactics are included in these flexible alternatives. OSHA estimates that these new limits would save 700 lives per year. It would also eliminate 1,600 cases of silicosis annually.

The National Demolition Association (NDA) has responded to the proposed limits. As a part of the Construction Industry Safety Coalition (CISC), the NDA participated in a Silica Coalition to evaluate how the new OSHA standards could impact the US construction and demolition industry. The coalition concluded that the new standards are not practical given everyday construction practices. According to the NDA and the Silica Coalition, the proposed guidelines are impractical, unenforceable, and a threat to the vitality of the construction economy. The NDA and the CISC are actively communicating this standpoint through the silica rulemaking process.

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