- The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) established a Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL) for respirable crystalline silica in 2017.
- The PEL is set at 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air over an eight-hour shift, which was a significant reduction from the previous limit of 250 micrograms.
- Silica dust, arising primarily from construction activities, poses severe health risks, including silicosis and cancer.
- Businesses can adopt various strategies to minimize silica dust exposure, such as wet methods, dust extraction, enclosures, and personal protective equipment.
- Continuous adherence to OSHA standards and regular health surveillance of workers is crucial to maintaining a safe working environment.
The Evolution of OSHA’s Silica Dust Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL)
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has been instrumental in instituting guidelines and safety measures to ensure a secure working environment across various industries. Among its noteworthy mandates is the OSHA Silica Dust Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL), which provides businesses with clear guidelines on acceptable levels of silica dust inhalation on job sites.
In 2016, OSHA revised the PEL for respirable crystalline silica, a change that particularly affected construction, manufacturing, and fracking sectors. The previously acceptable limit was an average of 250 micrograms per cubic meter of air over an 8-hour shift. However, this limit was significantly reduced to 50 micrograms per cubic meter, a fifth of the previous standard. This shift in standards was in response to the health risks posed by respirable crystalline silica to an estimated 1.86 million construction workers, with about a third exposed to levels higher than the new PEL.
Silica Dust: Unraveling the Invisible Hazard
Crystalline silica, predominantly in the form of quartz, is commonly found in sand, stone, rock, concrete, brick, block, and mortar. Workplace exposure to silica dust, one of the oldest known occupational hazards, occurs when activities such as chipping, cutting, drilling, and grinding materials containing crystalline silica release tiny respirable particles into the air.
Inhaled silica dust can penetrate the lungs, stomach, and bones, leading to debilitating diseases like silicosis and cancer. Besides, silica dust, wood dust inhalation also poses significant health risks, making dust control a critical concern in workplaces.
Preventing and Controlling Silica Dust Exposure: Best Practices
In light of the harmful effects of silica dust, businesses must adopt stringent measures to prevent and control exposure. Personal protective equipment, such as respirators and dust masks, play a vital role in preventing direct inhalation of dust particles. Moreover, workers should avoid eating in areas where dust could settle and ensure thorough washing of hands and face after dust exposure.
In addition to personal safety measures, equipment also plays a pivotal role in limiting dust exposure. Tools and technologies such as dust vacuums, dust shrouds, dust collection attachments, and products like Bosch’s Speed Clean Bits help produce clean holes in concrete while minimizing dust creation.
In essence, the prevention and control of silica dust inhalation revolve around three primary methods:
- Wet methods, where water is supplied at the point of dust creation by tools such as saws and drills
- Dust extraction or ventilation systems that remove silica dust at or near the point of production
- Enclosures that isolate the work process and/or the worker from dust exposure
Recent and Upcoming Compliance Updates
Since June 23, 2018, employers have been required to adhere to all regulations under the OSHA PEL for silica dust standards. Noteworthy among these is the mandate for employers to offer medical surveillance to employees exposed to levels at or above the action level for 30 or more days in a year, beginning June 23, 2020. Additionally, by June 23, 2021, hydraulic fracturing operations in the oil and gas industry were required to implement dust controls to limit exposures to the new PEL.
The 2016 revision of the OSHA Silica Dust Permissible Exposure Limit significantly reduced acceptable silica dust exposure from 250 to 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air. This landmark shift in standards underscores the critical role of tools, accessories, and preventive measures in minimizing workplace exposure to silica dust.
Understanding and abiding by OSHA’s silica dust PEL isn’t merely about compliance—it’s about safeguarding workers’ health and well-being. Ongoing commitment to safety measures, coupled with constant innovation in dust control technology, will ensure safer job sites and healthier futures for workers.