How to Comply with OSHA’s New Silica Dust Rules

OSHA’s stricter standards go into effect on September 23, 2017. Here’s what you should be doing to protect your workers and ensure you’re in compliance.

Construction crews can work near materials that contain crystalline silica, such as sand, concrete, stone and mortar, without any problems. But once workers start sanding, sawing, grinding or drilling these materials, they release miniscule particles of crystalline silica into the air. These particles are small enough — usually at least 100 times smaller than a grain of sand — to be breathed deep into the lungs. Once there, they can cause lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), kidney disease and silicosis, an incurable lung disease caused by the formation of scar tissue.

OSHA says its new standards for permissible exposure limits (PELs) for crystalline silica, once implemented, will prevent 600 deaths a year from these diseases. The rule limits worker exposure to 50 micrograms of respirable crystalline silica per cubic meter of air (μg/m3), averaged over an eight-hour day.

Companies will have to monitor silica levels in their work areas and implement practices to ensure workers don’t exceed the PEL. But OSHA recognizes how hard it can be to measure worker exposure to silica on a construction site, so it offers an alternative compliance method for the construction industry. It has developed a table of 18 common construction equipment and tasks with control methods and required respiratory protection for each.  Contractors need to follow these to comply with the new standards.

In general, the rules require your employees to use:

  • Some type of water system that delivers a stream or spray to a cutting blade or to the cutting surface; and/or
  • Dust filters that either operate with high efficiency or provide the air flow recommended by the manufacturer; and/or.
  • Shroud or cowling and dust collection systems; and/or
  • Respiratory protection with a minimum assigned protection factor.

The requirements for each type of equipment and task can change depending on whether your employee is working inside or outside, and for more or less than four hours. In every case, workers must operate and maintain a tool or piece of equipment in accordance with the manufacturer’s recommendations for minimizing dust emissions.

The new rules also require changes to some construction housekeeping practices. Your employees shouldn’t dry brush or dry sweep an area; they should use wet sweeping or some kind of HEPA-filtered vacuuming system instead. If they need to use compressed air, they’ll have to use it with a ventilation system.

Need more information? Check out OSHA’s respirable crystalline silica compliance guide for the construction industry