While most people think of silica as the tiny, inedible bags of beads placed in beef jerky packaging for freshness, they take on a whole new meaning when it comes to construction.

In fact, silica is quite dangerous in a construction setting, as it can severely impact the health and safety of construction workers doing certain job tasks, and anyone nearby.

In recent years, the OSHA silica standard has undergone changes that further define what it means to be safe when dealing with silica. While construction is still one of the most dangerous industries to work in, advancements in safety, such as the one that took place within the silica standard, signals that a commitment to safety in this industry is very much “on the radar.”

What is Silica?

Crystalline silica is commonly found in a wide array of building materials, namely soil, sand, granite and concrete. What makes it dangerous is that it’s a known carcinogen, capable of causing great harm to the human lungs.

Workers are exposed to silica when performing common construction jobs such as abrasive blasting with sand; sawing brick or concrete; sanding or drilling into concrete walls; grinding mortar; manufacturing brick, concrete, stone or ceramic products; and cutting or crushing stone. The small dust particles released into the air during these activities are easily inhaled by the worker and those nearby.

Why is Silica Dangerous?

On a microscopic level, silica particles in the air that are inhaled by the worker are about a hundred times smaller than a grain of sand. These particles can irritate the lungs and form scar tissue, or worst-case scenario, cause silicosis which is an incurable respiratory disease that can in some cases be fatal.

Crystalline silica dust exposure has also been found to increase the risks of lung cancer, kidney disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

While you’d think that, in modern times, this wouldn’t be nearly as big an issue given all the advancements in safety and safety technology, OSHA estimates that over 2 million U.S. workers are exposed to crystalline silica.

What is the Current OSHA Silica Standard?

The current OSHA standard for crystalline silica (29 CFR 1926.1153) has a body of mandates aimed at protecting workers from overexposure to silica. It essentially lays out everything that an employer should do to limit worker exposure to respirable crystalline silica and the steps that are necessary to protect workers.

To do so, employers have two options to comply with the standard.

They can either use a control method laid out in Table 1 of the construction standard, or they can measure workers’ exposure to silica independently and decide which dust controls work best to limit exposures in their workplaces to the permissible exposure limit (PEL).

What is Table 1?

Table 1 is a measurement tool that gives the most effective dust control methods for 18 common construction tasks. Some of these control measures include using water to keep dust from getting into the air or using a vacuum dust collection system to capture it.

There are certain cases in which a respirator is required to be used. If an employer opts to use the measurements laid out in Table 1 for their method of compliance, they’re not required to measure workers’ exposure to silica from those tasks and are not subject to the PEL.

Other Requirements of the Silica Standard

In addition to having employers comply with one of the two measures previously stated, all employers are required to comply with these safety measures:

  • Establish and implement a written exposure control plan that identifies tasks that involve exposure and methods used to protect workers, including procedures to restrict access to work areas where high exposures may occur;
  • Designate a competent person to implement the written exposure control plan;
  • Restrict housekeeping practices that expose workers to silica, such as the use of compressed air without a ventilation system to capture the dust and dry sweeping, where effective, safe alternatives are available;
  • Offer medical exams—including chest X-rays and lung function tests—every three years for workers who are required by the standard to wear a respirator for 30 or more days per year;
  • Train workers on the health effects of silica exposure, workplace tasks that can expose them to silica, and ways to limit exposure; Keep records of workers’ silica exposure and medical exams.

The Importance of the Silica Standard

Simply put, the silica standard aims to protect workers from a slow and painful decline in their health due to employer carelessness or negligence.

There was a time in history where industrial workers, such as those in construction, were considered expendable. Consequently, little emphasis was placed on protecting their health and well-being, or even their lives in general.

While safety has made strides since the inception of OSHA in the seventies, construction remains an extremely hazardous industry, playing host to four high-risk activities for job-related deaths dubbed the “Fatal Four.” In fact, according to OSHA, out of 4,674 worker fatalities in private industry in 2017, 971 or 20.7% were in the construction industry. When put into perspective, that means that one in five worker fatalities that year were in construction, and in more recent years, there hasn’t been a lot of change.

The crystalline silica standard, and its recent changes that better address worker safety, help eliminate hazards related to silica dust while holding employers accountable and responsible for their workers…something that historically, hadn’t been done.

Hanto + Clarke is a premier licensed general contractor firm in Pensacola, Florida known for providing our clients with excellence on time, every time. Contact us today for a quote on your commercial construction project.