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Construction Worker Silica Risks Are Focus of OSHA Request

Aug. 14, 2019, 1:28 PM

If you have a better way to protect construction workers from toxic, breathable silica dust, OSHA wants to hear from you.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration Aug. 14 released its request for information for how it could revise the construction silica rule’s list of construction methods considered safe enough to protect workers from dangerous levels of silica dust. The deadline to respond is Oct. 15.

Silica dust is typically produced when workers cut or drill into concrete, stone, or bricks. Overexposure can lead to scarring of the lungs by minute silica particles, making it difficult for those workers to breathe. In the worst cases, workers are afflicted with silicosis, a potentially fatal lung disease.

Resetting Table

Contractors and worker advocates generally have supported OSHA potentially revising the 2016 rule (RIN:1218-AD18). Builders want OSHA to expand the rule’s list of approved practices, called Table 1, while unions want to ensure that any changes don’t increase employee exposure risks.

The rule’s Table 1 details 18 methods contractors can use to limit how much airborne silica dust is produced (29 C.F.R. 1926.1153). Typically, the methods involve vacuuming the silica dust or using water to keep the dust from becoming airborne.

The request for information specifically asks for data on the effectiveness of dust collection systems for several tools, including handheld power saws, stationary masonry saws, handheld drills, power sanders, paint scrapers, and water systems for drills.

OSHA also is interested in information on the effectiveness of floor or pedestal fans for blowing dust away from workers and whether demolition work using manual tools could be included in Table 1.

OSHA requires contractors not adhering to Table 1 to have air monitoring programs measuring how much silica dust each worker is exposed to, provide regular medical reviews of workers’ silica exposure, and in some instances provide personal protection equipment such as respirators.

When OSHA released the construction rule and a companion regulation for other industries in 2016, the agency estimated the requirements should annually prevent 642 deaths and 918 moderate to severe lung disease cases.

The rule sets a permissible exposure limit (PEL) for airborne crystalline silica of 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air (50 μg/m3), 80% less than the old construction limit of 250 μg/m3.

OSHA estimated the annual implementation cost at $1.03 billion. But safety consultants and employer representatives said OSHA underestimated the compliance costs by as much as tenfold.

Employer groups challenged the rule, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld it in December 2017.

To contact the reporter on this story: Bruce Rolfsen in Washington at BRolfsen@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Simon Nadel at snadel@bloomberglaw.com; Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com