Construction, Human Resources, and Law

How might the new silica standards affect my next project?

December 29, 2017
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This past fall, the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration adopted federal regulation OSHA 1926.1153 — regulating silica dust exposure for workers in a variety of settings and industries.

Construction is arguably the most affected industry as the production of silica dust can come from several construction materials and procedures including the mixing, cutting and drilling of concrete, masonry, tile, stone and some plaster/gypsum based materials. As a building owner or design professional, you may not notice the effects of many OSHA regulations, but the new silica standard will have a dramatic impact on the job site.

What is silica?

Silica is a basic component of soil, sand, granite, quartz, brick and concrete block. When these materials are cut or manipulated, silica dust is created and easily inhaled. Once in the human lung, silica can cause silicosis, a disease characterized by scar tissue in the lungs. This disease is incurable, irreversible and progressive, eventually causing fatality. While the disease is not common, the rate of silicosis is much higher in workers that are consistently exposed to silica dust in the work place, like construction workers.

What does the standard require?

OSHA 1926.1153 states employers must limit a worker’s exposure to silica by taking steps to limit, control and capture silica dust as it is created. There are a number of ways to comply on the job site; from the use of water to combat dust to a new line of tools manufactured with integral HEPA-filtered vacuum systems. In an effort to assist with compliance, OSHA has created a table, which outlines common silica-creating tasks and the acceptable controls under the regulations.

How can companies comply with the standard?

Following the guidelines and direction given in the OSHA table is the primary way that companies can comply with the new regulations. Compliance will require an investment in new tools and equipment, as well as additional labor for certain tasks. For instance, drills and saws for masonry or concrete must have integral water delivery systems or integral vacuum systems. Common tools such as a hammer drill, used for drilling into hard materials, will essentially be obsolete without these new enhancements.

Additionally, tasks that may have required only a single worker previously may now require additional labor under the new regulation. Depending on the situation, while one worker performs a silica-producing task, another may need to operate an engineering control, like vacuuming or watering down the work area to control dust.

Companies also can implement rigorous respirator programs for tasks where the containment of dust is not feasible. The regulations around respirator use are complicated and hard to summarize here, but will require companies to invest in new equipment, training and administrative tracking.

How will this affect your next project?

Additional labor and the investment in new equipment by contractors will likely be, “passed through” to building owners at some level, increasing the costs of certain construction trades and techniques.

Generally, the industry is good at adopting new regulations and adjusting quickly to a new way of doing things. Many product and tool manufacturers have been preparing for the implementation of the new regulations for years. The hope is the cost impact of compliance will be short term. The challenge for our industry is how the regulation is enforced. While OSHA’s table is clear, it does not include direction on every possible silica-producing task, which leaves room for interpretation.

It is important to remember the new silica standard is rooted in the desire to create safer workplaces, something our organization believes in deeply. The West Michigan construction community always has been very collaborative and supportive when it comes to safety. We all can help each other comply with these new regulations through shared best practices, communication and a mutual understanding that compliance with this regulation will require us to modify our standard operating procedures.

Keep an eye out for these new safety measures next time you are on the job site. Just think, with less dust being created, you should be able to spot these new controls more easily!

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