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New OSHA Silica Dust Rule to Save Estimated 600 Lives Per Year

March 24, 2016

An estimated 600 lives will be saved each year by a new federal rule announced Thursday intended to limit exposure to respirable silica dust in American workplaces.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued a final rule that aims to protect more than two million workers exposed to crystalline silica in the workplace from the harmful dust, which is linked to lung cancer, silicosis, and other serious health conditions.

“More than 80 years ago, Labor Secretary Frances Perkins identified silica dust as a deadly hazard and called on employers to fully protect workers,” US Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez said in a OSHA press release. “This rule will save lives. It will enable workers to earn a living without sacrificing their health.”

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Taking effect on June 23, 2016, the new standards reduce the permissible exposure limit (PEL) of respirable crystalline silica to 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air, averaged over an eight-hour shift, require the use of equipment and work practices that limit exposure, and mandate that employers limit access to high exposure areas and provide safety training. When controls cannot limit exposure to the dust, companies will now be required to provide respiratory equipment and provide medical exams for highly exposed workers.

“The previous exposure limits were outdated and did not adequately protect workers,” Dr. David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, said in the OSHA press release. “Limiting exposure to silica dust is essential. Every year, many exposed workers not only lose their ability to work, but also to breathe. Today we are taking action to bring worker protections into the 21st century in ways that are feasible and economical for employers to implement.”

Aside from protecting the physical safety of workers, OSHA predicts net benefits of $7.7 billion annually as a result of the measures.

As part of the new rule, employers will be required to use engineering controls, like water or ventilation, to limit workers’ exposure to silica. OSHA notes that technologies used to curb dust exposure are “widely available."

While impacting all industries where respirable silica dust is present in the workplace, OSHA’s final rule was written as two separate standards - one for construction businesses and another for general industry and maritime companies.

Construction companies will have one full year after the effective date to comply with the rule and general industry and maritime companies have two years to meet the requirements. Hydraulic fracturing companies must also comply within two years, except for the provisions on engineering controls, which must be met by June 23, 2021.

By John S. Forrester, managing editor for Powder & Bulk Solids. He can be reached at [email protected]

To learn more about OSHA’s new rule on respirable crystalline silica, visit www.osha.gov/silica

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