In August 2013, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (“OSHA”) announced a proposed rule regarding workplace exposure to crystalline silica. The proposal includes two separate standards – one for general industry and maritime employment, and one for construction.
If you do not know what crystalline silica is, chances are you are not in an industry that has exposure to it. Crystalline silica is minute, respirable particles that are generated from operations involving stone, rock, concrete, brick, block, mortar and industrial sand. Workers who encounter these materials are in a broad range of industries, including mining, oil and gas, foundries, masonries, pottery manufacturing, and sand blasting.
OSHA’s proposal seeks to limit routine occupational exposure to the so-called “deadly dust.” Inhalation of the particles causes silicosis, an incurable lung disease. Workers are also at risk for developing lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and kidney disease. OSHA estimates that its proposal will save 700 lives each year and prevent 1,600 cases of silicosis annually. There are already established permissible exposure limits (“PEL”) for silica, but they were established in 1971 – new research reflects that more stringent standards are needed. The new PEL, 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air, would apply to all the regulated industries (though OSHA plans to create distinct standards for the construction industry). In addition to the PEL, the rule also calls for medical surveillance, worker training, recordkeeping, and exposure assessments.
Initially, the deadline to submit written comments and testimony to OSHA was December 11, 2013. That deadline, however, was extended by an additional 47 days to allow for additional public input. The new cut-off is January 27, 2014. Public hearings on the issue are scheduled to begin in March and will likely continue for several weeks due to the significant impact the rule will have on so many industries. Millions of American workers encounter crystalline silica in their day-to-day work operations.
The proposal will directly affect many small businesses and OSHA is specifically interested in receiving input from these entities. Be sure to check back on Wednesday with some tips on what employers can do now to protect workers (and potentially limit their liability for future silica-related claims).