August Mack Newsletter | January, 2018

Is it Dust, or Respirable Crystalline Silica? What's Your Liability?
by Scott Pfeiffer

By now, it should be old news that there is a new OSHA Standard for Respirable Crystalline Silica (29 CFR 1926.1153). The new standard was effective June 23, 2016. Enforcement has already begun for construction, and the official enforcement date for general industry is June 23, 2018. The standard is aimed at ensuring workers exposed to respirable silica at their job are properly protected, and that the nearly 600 lives lost and 900 new cases of silica related diseases reported each year due to exposure can be eliminated. It is also hoped the annual cost of $7.7 billion to treat diseases associated with unprotected exposure can be reduced.    

The new silica rule is actually made up of two rules, one for general industry and maritime, and one for the construction industry. Target industries include foundries, brick manufacturing, glass manufacturing, hydraulic fracturing, sandblasting, concrete cutting, and rock drilling to name a few. The point is, this is sweeping in its impact to employers.

What is Respirable Silica, and who is at risk

Respirable crystalline silica are very small particles. At least 100 times smaller than ordinary sand you might find on beaches and playgrounds. It becomes respirable when it is acted upon mechanically by blasting, cutting, sawing, grinding, drilling, and crushing stone or rock, cutting concrete, brick or block. Activities like these result in worker exposures to respirable crystalline silica dust. In addition, industrial sand used in certain operations, such as foundry work and hydraulic fracturing (fracking), is often a significant source of respirable crystalline silica exposure. In all, about 2.3 million people in construction and general industry in the U.S. are exposed to respirable silica. Workers who inhale these very small particles are at increased risk of developing serious silica related diseases that include:

  • Silicosis, an incurable lung disease that can lead to breathing disabilities and death.
  • Lung cancer.
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
  • In some cases kidney diseases. 

What is an Exposure Assessment?

Any workplace that processes materials that contain silica must assess the risk to workers by conducting an exposure assessment. The standard states “The employer shall assess the exposure of each employee who is or may reasonably be expected to be exposed to respirable crystalline silica at or above the action level…” An exposure assessment is a measure of a workers inhaled exposure to air born respirable crystalline silica over an average workday (monitoring times vary for general industry and construction activities). OSHA established an Action Level of 25 micrograms/cubic meter, and a Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL) of 50 micrograms/cubic meter. These are significantly lower than the old standards because the agency determined that exposure to silica at previous levels still resulted in significant risk to workers.

OSHA's Respirable Crystalline Silica standard requires employers to limit worker exposures to respirable crystalline silica, and to take other steps to protect workers depending on what the exposure levels are.

Among other things, the standard requires employers to:

  • Assess employee exposures to silica if it may be at or above an action level of 25 µg/m3 (micrograms of silica per cubic meter of air), averaged over an 8-hour day.
  • Protect workers from respirable crystalline silica exposures above the permissible exposure limit (PEL) of 50 µg/m3, averaged over an 8-hour day.
  • Limit workers' access to areas where they could be exposed above the PEL.
  • Use dust controls to protect workers from silica exposures above the PEL.
  • Provide respirators to workers when dust controls cannot limit exposures to the PEL.
  • Use housekeeping methods that do not create airborne dust, if feasible.
  • Establish and implement a written exposure control plan that identifies tasks that involve exposure and methods used to protect workers.
  • Offer medical exams - including chest X-rays and lung function tests - every three years for workers exposed at or above the action level for 30 or more days per year.
  • Train workers on work operations that result in silica exposure and ways to limit exposure.
  • Keep records of exposure measurements, objective data, and medical exams.

Important dates to keep in mind:

General industry and maritime employers must comply with all requirements of the standard by June 23, 2018, except for the following:

Medical surveillance must be offered to employees who will be exposed at or above the action level for 30 or more days a year starting on June 23, 2020. (Medical surveillance must be offered to employees who will be exposed above the PEL for 30 or more days a year starting on June 23, 2018.)

Hydraulic fracturing operations in the oil and gas industry must implement engineering controls to limit exposures to the new PEL by June 23, 2021.

Until June 23, 2018, general industry and maritime employers must limit employee exposure to respirable crystalline silica to the previous PELs.

What policies, plans, PPE, engineering controls, and obligations must be implemented pending the exposure assessment and exposure results?

The following is a summary, based on exposure results, which require specific actions by the employer. It is important to remember that if your results are below the Action Level (25 micro grams/cubic meter) there is no further action required. The exception is where there is a change in process, or raw materials being used in manufacturing that contain silica. In summary:

  • If all exposure was below 25 µg/m³, re-test if your processes change.
  • If exposures are above the action level of 25 µg/m³ or PEL of 50 µg/m³, regulatory requirements will apply.
  • Notify employees of results within 15 days of receiving results. It is their right to know!

If exposure levels are above the Action Level, but below PEL Level, these requirements apply:

  • Semi-annual air monitoring
  • Housekeeping
  • Medical Surveillance
  • Hazard Communication
  • Recordkeeping

If exposure levels are above the Permissible Action Level, these requirements apply:

  • Quarterly air monitoring
  • Establish regulated areas
  • Written exposure control plan
  • Respirators
  • Engineering controls
  • Housekeeping
  • Medical surveillance
  • Hazard Communication
  • Recordkeeping

During our March 21 webinar, we will describe in greater detail the specific “how to” for compliance. Starting with the exposure assessment, determining what needs to be done to comply, implementing the required plans, monitoring, medical surveillance, PPE, and engineering controls that may be required.


Scott Pfeiffer is a Business Development Representative for August Mack Environmental based out of the Lewis Center, Ohio office. Scott is a member of the National Registry of Environmental Professionals (NREP), and is a Certified Environmental and Safety Compliance Officer (CESCO). Scott has over 30 years experience helping industries with EPA environmental compliance issues, OSHA safety compliance, remedial construction needs, site assessment, and ground water remediation. Scott specializes in connecting clients with the right people and solutions for their specific needs. Scott can best be reached at 740-548-1500 or spfeiffer@augustmack.com.


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