A lot of things that have changed since 1971. However, until last year, OSHA’s regulation protecting workers from the hazards of respirable crystalline silica was not one of them. After 40-plus years without an update, OSHA’s final silica rule is set to go into effect this summer.
By Sept. 23, 2017, OSHA requires that the permissible exposure limit (PEL) for silica will be 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air over an 8-hour, time-weighted average for most construction companies.
Employers must also use engineering controls, like water or ventilation, to reduce worker exposure to the PEL, and provide proper respirators when engineering controls aren’t enough.
A standard series of medical surveillance tests, as well as silica risks training, is required for each employee that encounters crystalline silica in the workplace.
In March 2016, U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez addressed the new silica rule implementation publicly at stakeholder event in Bowie, MD.
“I’m sorry this took so long,” Perez said. “Silica is a killer and employers need to take the necessary steps so that they can reduce exposure. And the good news is that those necessary steps are not going to break the bank. It’s real simple stuff. Get a vacuum. Get water. Those are the key elements of pretty simple compliance.”
The necessity of keeping workers safe from silica
Crystalline silica, often referred to as quartz, is found in materials that are used for high risk jobs, such as: abrasive blasting, foundry work, stone cutting, rock drilling, quarry work and tunneling.
When workers drill, grind and cut these materials (i.e. asphalt, brick, cement, concrete, drywall, stone, sand), the particles shrink to respirable size (less than 10 µ in diameter).
Once inhaled, those particles cause the formation of scar tissue on the worker’s lungs (silicosis), which reduces his/her ability to take in oxygen.
If those formations become too large, breathing becomes very difficult.
There have been multi-industry court challenges since OSHA’s final ruling was announced. Some coalitions argue that the final rule is unnecessary, as silica-related deaths are rapidly decreasing.
Others are pushing for even stronger, more stringent regulations. While the effectiveness of the final ruling continues to be a point of debate,
Perez believes that changes were necessary to protect workers.
“We’ve known for over 40 years that [the silica standard] needed to be strengthened, and it has taken 40 years to strengthen it,” Perez said. “Many people who are going to work right now and breathing unacceptable levels of silica dust are in for a brighter future.”
Tom Ward and his father’s struggle with silicosis
The labor secretary wasn’t the only one with heightened emotions that evening. Detroit brick-and-stone mason Tom Ward joined Perez for the announcement.
His father, a sandblaster, was diagnosed with silicosis at 34. He suffered from collapsed lungs and eventually suffocated to death after a five-year struggle, leaving his family in both emotional and financial ruin.
“When I was thirteen years old, my father died of silicosis,” Ward said in a 2012 statement submitted to the U.S. Senate Committee on Heath, Education, Labor and Pensions. “In his twenties, he worked as a sandblaster for five to six years.
“After he left his job sandblasting, my dad took a job where he was represented by the Teamsters’ Union – he had good pay and benefits that my family relied on. A few years into his new job, he started getting short of breath.
“I remember my mom telling me the doctors suspected lung infections…the hardest memory to live with is the last day he worked – he came in the door, fell to the floor and started crying.
“He said ‘I can’t do it anymore.’ It took 5 years for silicosis to kill him. It was a slow and very painful process for me, my sisters and for my mother to witness.”
Currently, there is no known cure for silicosis.