Updated Guidance to Come
Last year, OSHA approved new enforcement standards related to the subject of silica, which were scheduled to go into effect June 23, 2017. These new rules require organizations to develop written silica exposure plans, offer medical exams, maintain substance-specific records and roll out formalized training on the subject. The agency chose to delay the implementation of these new rules in April and requested more time for review. It has since moved the enforcement date up to Sept. 23, 2017, meaning construction firms and other industrial companies should begin developing the systems required to comply. Employers should expect further guidance from OSHA on silica dust control in the months to come.
Silica Dust Basics
Crystalline silica is found in sand and soil. There are three distinctive types: cristobalite, tridymite and quartz, the most common form. Workers in industries such as construction, mining and manufacturing are most likely to come across the substance, as it is often emitted during activities that involve cutting, chipping or grinding materials such as asphalt, brick and drywall, all of which contain silica, according to The Center for Construction Research and Training.
The Impact of Silica Dust
An estimated 2 million workers are exposed to silica dust, OSHA found. Those who encounter the substance too often can develop silicosis, which is, unfortunately, very difficult to detect. There are three forms of the condition: chronic, accelerated and acute. Individuals with chronic silicosis develop the disease over 15 to 20 years of low-grade silica exposure. Sufferers may experience shortness of breath and chest pains. However, many workers with chronic silicosis do not experience any outward systems in the early stage of the condition and need chest X-rays to determine its presence. Accelerated silicosis occurs after roughly five to 10 years of high exposure. Those with the disease often experience shortness of breath, weakness and weight loss. The acute form of the condition develops as a result of extremely high levels of silica exposure and includes the aforementioned systems, which develop and worsen at an accelerated pace – usually in as little as three months. If allowed to progress untreated, acute silicosis can lead to respiratory failure and death.
Overall, more than 250 American workers die every year from silicosis. With this in mind, organizations must develop and deploy specific health and safety protocols devoted to addressing silica in the workplace.
How to Address Silica in the Workplace
The first step involves replacing materials containing the substance with silica-free alternatives, according to OSHA. Materials like aluminum oxide, melamine plastic and steel grit fall into this category. In addition to replacing silica-laced substances, firms can institute operational procedures that cut down on the creation of silica dust such as water spraying. Distributing functioning respirator systems and washable work clothing is also a good solution. Dust-collection systems are useful here as well. Above all else, companies must train their workers on the dangers of silica dust, as simple awareness can reduce the prevalence of silicosis.
Those that fail to meaningfully work to limit silica exposure in the workplace not only endanger workers but also open themselves up to compliance-related fines. The current exposure silica exposure limit is 25 micrograms per eight-hour workday, according to OSHA. The agency advises firms to focus on implementing engineering controls, as these prove more reliable than ancillary safety measures, which vary depending the application efficacy.