OSHA’s Controversial Silica Rule Set in Motion

March 24th, 2016 by Nick St. Denis

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued its final “Silica Rule,” intended to limit construction and general industry workers’ exposure to respirable crystalline silica.

The rule, which has been in the works since 2013, reduces the permissible exposure limit (PEL) for workers. It also requires employers to implement engineering controls, offer medical exams and develop control plans related to the issue.

Glass Association of North America (GANA) executive vice president Bill Yanek says silica is indispensable to flat glass production and something the industry has taken initiative on prior to the rule development.

“Our industry has already implemented various engineering and work process controls to reduce crystalline silica exposure,” says Yanek. “Requiring the flat glass manufacturing industry to completely redesign their operating furnaces and other manufacturing equipment and processes is not merely unreasonable as a matter of policy but also beyond OSHA’s legal authority.”

The Department of Labor was slated to host a stakeholder call on the final rule Thursday afternoon.

OSHA claims approximately 2.3 million workers (2 million in construction and 300,000 workers in general industry operations) are exposed to respirable crystalline silica in their workplaces. It estimates the rule “will save over 600 lives and prevent more than 900 new cases of silicosis each year” and “is projected to provide net benefits of about $7.7 billion, annually.”

The rule was met with pushback from the construction industry during its development and still is.

“NAHB has long advocated the importance of the rule being both technologically and economically feasible,” says Ed Brady, chairman of the National Association of Home Builders and home builder and developer from Bloomington, Ill. “While we’re still reviewing the final rule, we’re concerned that it may not adequately address these issues and take into consideration real-world application.”

Last year, the Construction Industry Safety Coalition (CISC) released a study claiming the rule will cost the U.S. construction industry $5 billion per year—roughly $4.5 billion per year more than OSHA’s estimates. The coalition cautioned that the flawed cost estimates reflect deeper flaws in the rule and urged the federal agency to reconsider its approach.

“The cost and impact analysis from OSHA reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the construction industry,” reads a CISC statement. “The OSHA analysis included major errors and omissions that account for the large discrepancies with the CISC report.”

OSHA, however, insists “responsible employers have been protecting workers from harmful exposure to respirable crystalline silica for years, using widely-available equipment that controls dust with water or a vacuum system.”

The North America’s Building Trades Union (NABTU) supports the rule.

“We believe that the agency has been diligent in its efforts to hear and consider all stakeholder input, and done a great job in getting the rule out. We look forward to reading it in detail,” reads a statement from the union. “For 20 years, NABTU and our affiliates have been urging OSHA and the DOL to finalize this rule because reducing silica exposures will have a significant positive impact on the working conditions for all American construction workers.”

Key provisions to the rule, according to OSHA, are as follows:

– Reduces the PEL for respirable crystalline silica to 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air, averaged over an eight-hour shift;

– Requires employers to: use engineering controls (such as water or ventilation) to limit worker exposure to the PEL; provide respirators when engineering controls cannot adequately limit exposure; limit worker access to high exposure areas; develop a written exposure control plan, offer medical exams to highly exposed workers, and train workers on silica risks and how to limit exposures;

– Provides medical exams to monitor highly exposed workers and gives them information about their lung health.

Both the construction and general industry standards take effect on June 23, 2016. The construction industry has until June 23, 2017 to comply, while the general industry has until June 23, 2018.

Michael O’Brien, president and CEO of the Window and Door Manufacturers Association (WDMA), says WDMA “is evaluating the final silica rule to determine the potential impact on window and door manufacturers and any actions that may be needed prior to the June 2018 implementation date.”

The full document will be published Friday, March 25. OSHA has provided information about the rule on a dedicated webpage here.

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