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Proposed OSHA silica rules of concern to recycling industry Click to Enlarge

Skirmish lines are forming between the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the newly established Silica Coalition. The coalition comprises more than 20 industry associations with members who are routinely exposed to crystalline silica dust during construction, demolition and recycling.

Exposure to airborne silica dust, which causes silicosis, occurs in operations involving cutting, sawing, drilling and crushing of concrete, brick, stone and drywall. Silica is also used in products like asphalt shingles, and in other manufacturing operations using sand products. Many of these operations affect the recycling industry.

OSHA has issued a proposed rule, not a final rule, aimed at curbing silicosis, an incurable and progressive lung cancer, and chronic obstructive pulmonary and kidney disease. The proposal essentially aims to cut in half the current permissible exposure limits (PELs) for respirable crystalline silica to lower worker exposure. OSHA believes that current PEL levels kill hundreds of workers and sicken thousands.


OSHA currently enforces PELs for respirable crystalline silica in general industry, construction and shipyards. These PELs were adopted in 1971, shortly after OSHA was created, and have not been updated. The PEL for quartz (the most common form of crystalline silica) in general industry is a formula that is approximately equivalent to 100 micrograms per cubic meter of air as an 8 hour time-weighted average. The PEL for quartz in construction and shipyards is a formula based on a now-obsolete particle count sampling method that is approximately equivalent to 250 micrograms per cubic meter of air as an 8 hour time weighted average. The current PELs for two other forms of crystalline silica (cristobalite and tridymite) are one-half of the values for quartz in general industry.

OSHA is proposing a new PEL for respirable crystalline silica (quartz, cristobalite and tridymite) of 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air as an 8 hour time-weighted average in all industry sectors covered by the rule, a 50 percent reduction. OSHA is also proposing other elements including requirements for exposure assessment (job site monitoring), preferred methods for controlling exposure, respiratory protection, medical surveillance, hazard communication and recordkeeping.

In a statement issued on August 23 by Dr. David Michaels, the assistant secretary of labor said, “We are strongly encouraging the public to participate in the process of developing a final rule through submitting written comments and participating in public hearings that are scheduled to begin in Washington, DC in early March. Our process of obtaining public input will take many months, and we encourage and welcome the public to participate. OSHA’s objective is to develop a standard that not only protects workers, but also makes sense in the workplace.” This timeline, of course, will give the Silica Coalition and others ample opportunity to voice their concerns.

American Recycler News asked OSHA about the background of the proposed rules and the timetable for review and input. “OSHA held a series of stakeholder meetings in 1999 and 2000 to get input on the rulemaking,” said the OSHA spokesperson. “Meetings for all industry sectors were held in Washington, Chicago, and San Francisco and a separate meeting for the construction sector was held in Atlanta. Following these stakeholder meetings, OSHA developed draft regulatory text and supporting materials for the rulemaking. Many of the recommendations resulted in changes to the proposed rule or underlying cost, benefit and economic analyses.”

The deadline to submit written comments and testimony is January 27, 2014. Public hearings are scheduled to begin on March 18. The hearings are expected to continue for several weeks.

“I don’t understand why they want to cut the levels in half,” said Pat O’Brien, executive director of the Concrete Sawing & Drilling Association. “Government statistics show that the deaths in construction attributable to silica have dropped dramatically. And it continues to get better every year. We want to protect workers, but at what price and what’s achievable?”

O’Brien added, “OSHA currently enforces PELs for respirable crystalline silica in general industry, construction and shipyards. These PELs were adopted in 1971, but in 1968 the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) data showed that silica in 1968 was a contributing cause in just under 1,200 deaths in the U.S. So maybe this was a good reason for introducing a new PEL at that time. However, by 1999, the number had dropped to less than 200. The most recent data, from 2007, shows that deaths from silica have now dropped to less than 100. I would say the original PEL level is working and has dramatically reduced the number of deaths in construction to fewer than 100. So why now cut the PEL level by 50 percent or even 75 percent? The data just doesn’t support this action.”

When asked about health risks, the OSHA spokesperson replied, “CDC data indicates that from 2006 through 2010, silicosis was listed as the underlying or a contributing cause of death on more than 600 death certificates in the U.S., but most deaths from silicosis go undiagnosed. Also, many silica-related deaths are caused by chronic bronchitis, emphysema, lung cancer, kidney disease and other diseases. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2010, more workers died from silicosis than from explosions, being caught in or crushed in collapsing materials (such as collapse of trenches and structures), or being caught in running equipment or machinery.”

While the Silica Coalition is interested in working with OSHA to improve worker safety, the Coalition believes that the current OSHA rules which were established in 1977 provide more than adequate protection for workers and that the proposed workplace air monitoring and other requirements are impractical and unnecessary.

O’Brien elaborated, “OSHA is trying to apply rules that generally don’t work for our members. What is proposed today requires monitoring and a competent person to take air measurements to determine whether you need to do any protective measures to protect the workers on a job site. If someone is on a site for months at a time that might work, but we usually have one or two workers on a truck performing several jobs in a day. To have someone follow them around to take measurements and then get laboratory analysis does not make sense. The people would be on 20 jobs later before they got results.

“Because our operators are off and on jobs, that whole process would be very time consuming. Ten years ago when we realized that, we came up with a more simplified approach and put together some engineering controls. We went out and tested all of our different operations, indoors and outdoors, and determined what the silica levels were and then put together a chart. The chart showed our operators doing different operations. For example, if someone is doing flat-sawing outside there isn’t any PPE required and if it’s inside they need a HEPA 100 filter. We tried to make it simple so that operators were protected.”

“A lot of OSHA people have no idea of what our operations are or how sawing is done. The majority of our operators use water and it isn’t because of silica, but because of the life of the diamond blade. That has the additional benefit of reducing the silica in the air. We recorded those data points and had NIOSH people down to our training facility and they observed all of our operations. They said they had no problems with our approach to safety. The only time we would have a problem was indoors because you could see higher silica levels, but most of our operations are outdoors with good ventilation,” said O’Brien.

We asked OSHA about these industry concerns, and their spokesperson said, “OSHA recognizes that silica exposures may vary from day to day and in different operations. The proposed rule provides alternatives for assessing worker exposures to silica, so that the employer can choose which option works best in their workplace. Where periodic exposure assessments are needed, the employer has the choice of either measuring worker exposures at specified intervals, or following a performance option that allows them to rely on objective data, such as air monitoring data from industry-wide surveys, to assess worker exposure.

“Employers, whose employees are involved in construction operations, including recycling, salvage, and waste industries whose workers perform construction operations, may benefit from additional flexibilities included in the proposed rule. Construction employers have the option of following OSHA’s silica fact sheet on construction for a number of specific tasks. Table 1 details specific dust control measures and respiratory protection that employers can use to keep workers safe from silica exposures. Employers choosing to follow Table 1 would not be required to measure worker exposure to silica.”

“If an employer chooses to measure worker exposures to respirable crystalline silica rather than follow the performance option or Table 1, the employer would be responsible for lab and labor costs associated with air monitoring. The proposed rule addresses the minimum requirements for exposure monitoring to fulfill workers’ rights to know about their exposure. Many responsible employers choose to conduct more monitoring than required by the proposed rule in order to better characterize worker exposures.”

“Importantly, the proposed rule focuses on exposures of individual employees. Personal air monitoring equipment, which workers wear on their clothing to measure exposures in their breathing zone, is routinely used to measure exposures as crews move through several locations in a day and where weather conditions may vary.”

“If the silica PEL is exceeded, employers must first use engineering controls (i.e., dust controls such as water sprays) and work practices (e.g., prohibiting dry sweeping) to reduce worker exposures. In cases where engineering controls and work practices are insufficient to reduce worker exposures below the PEL, respirators would be required to supplement these controls. The proposal requires that employers would have to offer medical surveillance to workers exposed above the PEL for 30 or more days per year,” the OSHA spokesperson said.

The spokesperson added, “OSHA emphasizes that this is the beginning of an important process of public review and comment on the proposed rule. As OSHA works to develop a final rule, all comments, data and other documentary evidence submitted to the rulemaking docket for silica will be carefully reviewed and considered. OSHA is pleased to begin this dialogue, and the Agency looks forward to input and insight from industry partners to help make a final rule that is good for business and good for American workers.”

William Turley, executive director of the Concrete & Demolition Recycling Association commented on the proposed rules: “Obviously, it’s very early in the process and they have put out suggested levels and are seeing what the reaction is from the industry, whether or not we can do it and if there is a way to negotiate. We feel that the proposed regulation could have a tremendous effect and perhaps be detrimental to the recycling of materials such as concrete and asphalt shingles. So we are involved in the process. I think OSHA doesn’t want to hurt us on the recycling of these materials, but I’m not sure they understand everything that goes along with how they are processed. Respiratory personal protections equipment (PPE) is always offered to employees. Right now we are still evaluating what all of our members are doing”

“The concrete recycling industry fluctuates. It really depends on road work and is tied into government spending and how much is being done for infrastructure improvements. We can use recycled concrete as a base for anything from runways to subways stations to most common uses in roads. Recycled concrete is a better product than natural aggregate for a road base in many ways and usually less expensive so we have quite an advantage on that front,” Turley concluded.

Mike Taylor, executive director of the National Demolition Association weighed in on the proposed rules: “The new regulations apparently have some very specific requirements for air monitoring and regulatory compliance which are significant and could have an impact on the construction economy in general. We are concerned about the proposed regulations, but we think we do a pretty good job with silica exposure and with our newly revised safety manual on compliance with the existing silica standards.

“The compliance requirements from an economic standpoint and potentially from an administrative work practice could be significant. It could be that the administration is sensitive to the fact that the economy is weak and we are coming out of the worst recession in 80 years and that new regs may have a detrimental effect of the construction and mining industries,” said Taylor.

No doubt the details of the proposed rules for silica will be hotly debated among the Silica Coalition, other interested parties and OSHA. Hopefully, a resolution can be reached that does not impair economic growth and results in practical approaches to improved worker safety.