Despite implementation being delayed several times throughout 2017, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) new Respirable Silica in Construction Standard (29 CFR 1926.1153) is in full effect, and the impact the rule will have on contractors in various industries is substantial.
The new standard applies to all contractors whose work involves creating silica dust on jobsites through various impact methods such as sawing, breaking, grinding, and blasting of silica-containing materials; the most common being concrete, brick, mortar, and other cementitious materials. Think road workers, masons, demolition contractors, siding companies, etc. Employers who engage in these methods now have new, much stricter obligations toward their employees, among which a few are respiratory protection compliance, medical clearances, written exposure control plans, and training.
Having been under development and review for well over a decade now, the new Respirable Silica in Construction Standard is considered a major victory for OSHA as it reduces allowable exposures to silica dust from 250 micrograms per cubic meter of air averaged over an 8 hour shift, to just 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air averaged over an 8-hour shift. Furthermore, the new standard also requires employers implement various engineering work practice controls every time silica-containing materials are to be impacted. These changes come as an attempt by OSHA to reduce and/or eliminate some 1,600 new diagnoses of silicosis annually as well as 700 worker deaths from silica-related diseases every year. Employers who do not comply face serious penalties of $12,934 per day, per violation, with willful and repeated violations being as high as $129,336 per violation.
In addition to limiting exposure and implementing engineering controls, other employer obligations include written exposure control plans, dust-minimizing housekeeping practices, possible medical exams, record retention for exposures and medical exams, and employee training. Furthermore, it should be mentioned that the new rule places a particular responsibility on general contractors and their obligation to keep jobsites safe. Within the new standard, employers are responsible for preventing their employees from exposing other trades and workers onsite. This obligation, although not explicitly mentioned in the standard, could fall on general contractors ensuring that all subcontractors have training in the new standard. OSHA has never shied away holding general contractors responsible for the actions of their subcontractors on a jobsite, and nothing within the new Respirable Silica in Construction Standard suggests any different.