What is the Silica Rule?

Lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), kidney disease, and silicosis are among the chronic diseases that can result from exposure to silica dust. The new Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) ruling is designed to curb the danger to workers. There are two different application standards to the law; one that applies to construction workers and another that applies to maritime and general industry workers.

OSHA has released its final ruling, which was enacted to fight the effects of breathing silica in the workplace and prevent the several destructive lung diseases that workers are exposed to on a regular basis. The exposure of employees to crystalline silica is more rampant than most people realize, and the effect on workers who smoke can be greatly multiplied.

OSHA gives estimates that by the implementation of this rule, over 600 lives will be saved and over 900 new cases of silica poisoning every year will have been prevented. The net benefits on an annual basis are projected to be $7.7 billion.

What is silicosis?

Silicosis is a serious condition that is caused when silica particles are inhaled into the lungs over a long period of time. Damage can occur in the lungs from any level of exposure to silica particles. The small particles are inhaled into the lungs and permanently remain there, acting as little knives as they cut into the lung tissue.

These scars form scar tissue, which then makes it more difficult for the individual to breathe. The level of impairment is directly affected by the amount of time that the silica had been inhaled. The more years of exposure there was, the more serious the disease or condition is likely to be. Silica is also a known carcinogenic, meaning that it has been proven to cause cancer.

Numerous operations in various occupations present risks

Two million workers are exposed each year to silica, which can be breathed in at their workplaces. Workers who are employed in the construction trades are working around materials that contain silica, which is then made breathable by the grinding, crushing, or similar processes used to mold or cut stone, concrete, and other materials that contain the silicon.

Quartz stones or sand containing quartz crystals is the most common contributor of silicon poisoning in the workplace. Therefore, those beautiful quartz countertops and fireplaces are likely contributing to lung and other infectious diseases in carpenters.

These are some of the products containing silicon:

  • Cut stone
  • Stone products
  • Clay products
  • Glass products
  • Concrete products
  • Paints
  • Coatings
  • Pottery
  • Jewelry

These are just a few of the products known to contain silicon. The dangers to stone countertop cutters and installers are widely known by OSHA and National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) due to the reports of silicosis infections in other countries, most notably Israel and Spain, where workers were exposed due to a lack of dust suppression or respiration protective devices.

These engineered controls in the workplace and the use of wet cutting and processing reduces the risk considerably, and coupling these with respiration devices can nearly eliminate the risk.

Manufactured countertops may contain more than 90 percent silica, although real marble contains very little, if any silica. However, manufactured countertops are much less expensive than real marble, granite, slate, or sandstone which contains less silica than manufactured countertops, but the demand for these products is much higher than that of real marble, dolomite, calcite, and onyx due to the price.

Installers generally face a smaller risk than those who manufacture countertops and the use of masks and dust suppression apparatus lessen the likelihood of contamination. But, what about those working in factories that manufacture these products and derivatives?

What is OSHA’s plan?

Worker are exposed to silica in general industry environments in foundries, in the manufacturing of bricks, and in fracking activities. Over the years, OSHA has worked with employers to develop new methods to reduce the risks to employees. Employers need to take responsibility for the conditions in their workplaces and take the proper steps to protect their workers from silicosis. Management must employ the proper use of protective equipment, vacuuming processes, and water evacuation techniques to reduce the overall risk.

The primary provisions of the rule emphasize the need for a written plan for how the employer will implement the required OSHA protective measures. Such items as engineering controls to identify and limit exposure to silica, the availability of respirators, the ability of workers who are highly exposed to obtain regular medical checkups, and the use of sophisticated monitoring equipment, which can measure worker’s exposure to the silicon.

What is the effective date of the new standards?

Both standards of the final rule became effective on June 23, 2016. Dates of compliance vary by industry. The construction industry must be compliant by June 23, 2017, while the general, maritime industries, and the hydraulic fracturing industry must comply by June 23, 2018.