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The OSHA Silica Standard- Will It Be Enforced?

OSHA Silica Standard 1

The OSHA Silica Standard- Will It Be Enforced?

The health hazards of inhaling respirable crystalline silica dust have been known for over 400 years.   OSHA has had a permissible exposure limit (PEL) which was based on the 1968 Threshold Limit Value (TLV) established by the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH). Last year, OSHA enacted an expanded health standard for silica with a lower PEL, providing more comprehensive requirements to better protect workers. Earlier this month OSHA said it would delay the enforcement of the construction industry silica standard.   When will this standard be enforced? What will the enforcement look like especially under the new administration anti-regulatory stance?

The silica standards for Construction and General Industry and Maritime industries became effective on June 23, 2016. Industries have one to five years to comply with most requirements, based on the schedule listed below:

Construction: June 23, 2017, one year after the effective date (now September 23, 2017).

General Industry and Maritime: June 23, 2018, two years after the effective date.

Hydraulic Fracturing: June 23, 2018, two years after the effective date for all provisions except Engineering Controls, which have a compliance date of June 23, 2021.


OSHA stated in its April 6th memorandum, that enforcement of the construction industry standard will be delayed until September 23, 2017.   OSHA said it needed additional time to: (1) develop further guidance materials, (2) conduct additional outreach to the regulated community, and (3) provide additional training to compliance officers.


Respirable crystalline silica dust has been shown to cause silicosis (scarring of the lung from silica), lung cancer, pulmonary tuberculosis, and airways diseases. Exposures may also be associated with the development of autoimmune disorders, chronic renal disease, and other adverse health effects.

Other toxic substances such as asbestos and lead have been regulated by OSHA through expanded health standards. Expanded health standards usually contain several provisions including an initial exposure determination, monitoring, a written plan, engineering controls, personal protective equipment (PPE), employee training, medical surveillance and recordkeeping.

OSHA Silica Standard ECOthink

The recent OSHA construction industry silica standard:

  • Lowers the PEL for respirable crystalline silica to 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air, averaged over an 8-hour shift. (The action level (AL) is 25 ug/m3).
  • Mandates that employers use engineering controls (such as water or ventilation) to reduce worker exposure below the PEL and AL; provide respirators when engineering controls are not feasible or cannot sufficiently control exposure; limit worker access to high exposure areas; develop a written exposure control plan, offer medical exams to highly exposed workers, and train workers on silica risks and how to limit exposures.
  • Requires medical exams for highly exposed workers and implements a medical surveillance program for workers to be aware of their lung health
  • Provides some flexibility in compliance methods especially for small businesses

OSHA estimates that approximately 2.3 million workers are exposed to respirable crystalline silica including 2 million construction workers involved in drilling, cutting, crushing, or grinding materials such as concrete and stone, and 300,000 workers in general industry operations such as brick manufacturing, foundries, and hydraulic fracturing (fracking).

OSHA estimates that the silica legislation will save over 600 lives and prevent more than 900 new cases of silicosis each year.   Financial net benefits are estimated at about $7.7 billion, annually.


To effectively enforce the new silica standards, OSHA will need to develop a national emphasis program (NEP) to focus on specific high risk industries. To successfully implement this NEP, OSHA will need resources including enough compliance officers to enforce the regulations. It does not appear that the current administration will encourage such efforts. Rather, budgets will be severely reduced including compliance staff.   I also predict OSHA will be in reaction mode instead of a proactive one. They will be “putting out fires” and maybe providing compliance assistance. Responsible employers have been addressing silica hazards in their workplaces for years by conducting exposure assessments, periodic air monitoring and implementing engineering controls and PPE. Hopefully employers with move quickly to assess whether they are covered by the silica standard and fully comply if required.


Leon Levine, CIH, LEED AP

Leon Levine ecothink group

Leon is a certified industrial hygienist (CIH) with extensive experience managing environmental health and safety projects ranging from residential and commercial indoor air quality (IAQ) investigations to large scale development and implementation of global corporate programs and databases to minimize risks to building occupants, workers and communities.  Leon began working in the environmental field in 1991 conducting research on contamination and bioaccumulation of heavy metals in the Boston harbor.  Having worked at the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration for several years, Leon is highly experienced in interpreting and applying federal, state and local regulatory requirements in controlling environmental exposures.   Leon worked on numerous projects evaluating and addressing environmental contamination associated with the World Trade Center (WTC) attacks as well as Anthrax threats.   His work included assessing potential exposure to airborne beryllium fumes from burned computer components, investigating and applying a “fingerprint” of WTC dust and conducting microbial studies in WTC impacted buildings.  Within the last several years, Leon has worked predominantly in the heavy industrial manufacturing sector conducting exposure assessments, developing and implementing programs, and designing controls to reduce exposures stemming from the work environment.   Leon completed a bachelors in Biology at Boston University; a masters of science in Environmental and Occupational Health Science at City University of New York (CUNY), Hunter College; completed doctoral coursework  at Columbia University and is currently completing his doctorate at the School of Public Health at CUNY.   Feel free to contact him at leon@ecothinkgroup.com

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