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Crystalline Silica: Not Just Fun in the Sand Revisited

Stephen Badger 2014Posted by Stephen Badger, CSP, OHST

Although summer is now nothing but a distant memory and the beaches will be empty for months to come, we should remember that respirable crystalline silica is a major health hazard for those that are exposed to it.  November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month, so it seems appropriate to review recent OSHA enforcement policies regarding crystalline silica.

As a reminder, crystalline silica is the second most common mineral in the Earth’s crust and is found all over the world even in the sand on our beaches. Silica actually can be in one of three forms; Quartz, Cristobalite, and Tridymite. Quartz is the most common form and is found in many of our everyday building materials.

When workers chip, grind, saw, or cut materials that contain silica, small “respirable” pieces can be made that can be easily inhaled. While larger pieces of silica can become filtered out in our nose and trachea, respirable silica can continue down our respiratory tract and become lodged in our lungs. These microscopic particles are responsible for the health hazards associated with exposure the silica.

Between 1968 and 1992 approximately 20,000 employee deaths were associated with exposure to silica in the workplace. These death were caused by silicosis (a scarring of the lung tissue caused by silica), lung cancer, and kidney disease.

Silicosis is the most common disease associated with silica exposure. It can take 15-20 years to develop (chronic) with low to moderate exposures to silica, but it can take only a few months to a couple of years of high exposures to develop acute silicosis.

Because of the increased understanding of the health effects of exposure to silica, OSHA introduced a new standard on September 23, 2017 beginning with compliance assistance in lieu of full enforcement.  On October 19, 2017 Compliance Safety and Health Officers began full enforcement of 29 CFR 1926.1153 that contains many new requirements for the protection of employees who are exposed to silica:

  • The Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL) has been reduced to 50 ug/m3 for an eight hour Time Weighted Average (TWA).
  • Airborne exposures of silica to the Action Level of 25 ug/m3 triggers closer employee monitoring to ensure that the PEL is not exceeded.
  • Table 1 in the standard addresses specific work tasks with potential exposures to silica and the engineering and work practice controls required to reduce airborne particles.
  • New medical monitoring criteria for those employees exposed above the PEL.

In June 2018, OSHA’s General Industry silica regulation, 29 CFR 1910.1053, will become law and require many of the same worker protections as in Construction. Two notable exceptions in this standard:

  • Employers have to include employees in their silica exposure control program if they exposed above the crystalline silica Action Level for 30 or more days per year
  • Employers have 15 days to notify effected employees of the results of any air monitoring

Want to know more about the new OSHA standards for silica? OSHA has numerous resources on their website including several Fact Sheets.  MEMIC customers can also access the Safety Director and its Resource Library as well as our archived webinar entitled Air Sampling Strategies. 

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