OSHA's New Regulation on Silica

With the release of OSHA's Final Rule for Occupational Exposure to Respirable Crystalline Silica on March 25, 2016, the U.S. will likely reach a new era in silica regulation. Crystalline silica is the most well-studied and one of the oldest known causes of occupational lung disease, although thus far it has only been regulated on the national level by OSHA permissible exposure limits (PELs). However, efforts to release a comprehensive rule for the mineral have been underway for some time, with efforts toward a recommended standard headed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in the 1970s, and an in-earnest effort by OSHA to promulgate a standard in the early 2000s.

This new regulation will impact a broad cross-section of American industry, and, notably, construction, foundries, and fracking. The hallmark imperative of this regulation is a PEL of 50 µg/m3, which cuts the previous PEL in half. In addition, there is an action level of 25 µg/m3 that will trigger additional requirements serving to prevent employees from developing a disease. The regulation also contains requirements for exposure assessment, controls including respiratory protection, medical surveillance, hazard communication, and a written silica control plan, among others. Notably, abrasive blasting with sand is still allowed in the U.S. despite that it can result in the highest silica exposures if workers are not properly protected, and that there are alternatives to sand. Appropriately, the new regulation contains a clause with regard to controlling exposures from sand abrasive blasting.

Many in the public health community have long seen the necessity of passing a standard that comprehensively regulates crystalline silica exposure. OSHA has estimated that the expected exposure reduction resulting from the regulation will prevent silicosis in over 900 workers annuallyand save over 600 lives annually. The Agency estimates that the annual cost to industry will be $1.03 billion, but with annual benefits to industry of over $8 billion (see Table I-1 of the Final Rule). Certain industry representatives and congressional representatives have expressed an intent to block and oppose the regulation in courts. Nevertheless, this occupational health standard, which has been a top priority both for the current OSHA administration headed by David Michaels and past OSHA administrators, is an important step toward protecting the health of U.S. workers.

For more information, please contact Thomas Slavin.