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Construction sector to see greatest impact of OSHA's new silica rule

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ATLANTA — The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration's new silica rule will greatly reduce silica exposures for workers in the construction industry, and employers should start working to comply with it now, according to the agency's head.

The Occupational Exposure to Respirable Crystalline Silica rule will reduce the permissible exposure limit for crystalline silica to 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air, averaged over an eight-hour shift, from the previous 100 micrograms per cubic meter of air standard for general industry.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommended in the early 1970s that OSHA implement a rule lowering the limits for silica exposure, and the current rule was developed after a 19-year rulemaking process.

“The policy has finally caught up with the science,” David Michaels, assistant secretary of Labor for occupational safety and health told attendees of the American Society of Safety Engineers' annual conference in Atlanta on Tuesday.

The silica rule consists of two standards, one for general industry and one for construction, which features guidance commonly referred to as Table 1 outlining exposure control methods for selected construction operations.

“I don't think there's any question that the big gains are going to be had in the construction industry,” he said. “Everybody I think who's ever looked at a construction site where someone is using a jackhammer, cutting cinderblock, has seen these clouds of dust. Those clouds don't have to be there. That to me is the low-hanging fruit. Relatively inexpensive equipment, easily sold, and the market is growing for these things. We're going to see a real drop in exposure in the construction industry.”

Employers who follow Table 1 methods included in the silica rule are not required to measure workers' exposure and are not subject to the permissible exposure limits, Mr. Michaels said. Employers who do not use the Table 1 control methods will be required to measure the amount of silica workers are exposed to see if they may be at or above the action level, use dust controls to protect workers from exposures above the permissible exposure limit and provide respirators to workers when dust controls cannot limit exposures to that threshold.

“What we've told construction employers is you have two choices — you can take the easy route because we know a lot about silica exposures in construction,” he said. “If you follow Table 1, you won't be cited. You'll be keeping your workers safe.”

“We'll see in the construction industry, Table 1 will become the bible,” Mr. Michaels added.

The implementation clock on the silica rule started last week, with construction employers required to comply by June 23, 2017, while general industry, maritime and hydraulic fracturing employers would have an additional year for most requirements, except that fracking companies will have five years to implement engineering controls.

“The message I'd like you to give out to your clients is: don't wait a year, protect your workers now,” Mr. Michaels said.