OSHA’s previous silica rule regarding permissible exposure limits (PEL) for silica were outdated and hadn’t been updated in over 40 years. The agency determined that silica dust exposure at the previous levels resulted in a significant health risk of developing or dying from silicosis and dying from lung cancer, other lung diseases or kidney disease. The new OSHA silica standard for PEL limits exposures to 50 micrograms of respirable crystalline silica per cubic meter of air, averaged over an 8 hour work day.
Crystalline silica exposures can be controlled to keep contact at or below the PEL by using engineering controls and work practices as the primary way to keep exposures at or below the PEL. Using local exhaust ventilation and wetting down surfaces can avoid silica hazards in the workplace. Use of respirators are only allowed when work practices do not adequately keep levels below the required PEL for crystalline silica.
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Crystalline silica is a common mineral found in many naturally occurring materials and used in many industrial products and at construction sites. Materials like sand, concrete, stone and mortar contain crystalline silica. Crystalline silica is also used to make products such as glass, pottery, ceramics, bricks, concrete and artificial stone. Industrial sand used in certain operations, such as foundry work and hydraulic fracturing (fracking), is also a source of silica.
Inhaling very small ("respirable") crystalline silica particles, causes multiple diseases, including silicosis, an incurable lung disease that can lead to disability and death. Respirable crystalline silica also causes lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and kidney disease.
Around 2.3 million workers are exposed to crystalline silica on the job. Simply being near sand or other silica-containing materials is not hazardous. The hazard exists when specific activities create respirable dust that is released into the air.
Respirable crystalline silica - very small particles typically at least 100 times smaller than ordinary sand found on beaches or playgrounds - is generated by high-energy operations like cutting, sawing, grinding, drilling and crushing stone, rock, concrete, brick, block and mortar; or when using industrial sand. Activities such as abrasive blasting with sand; sawing brick or concrete; sanding or drilling into concrete walls; grinding mortar; manufacturing brick, concrete blocks, or ceramic products; and cutting or crushing stone generates respirable dust.
The new rule requires that employers use engineering controls - such as ventilation and wet methods for cutting and sawing crystalline silica-contailing materials - to reduce workers' exposure to silica dust. Once the full effect of the rule are realized, OSHA expects it to prevent 600 deaths a year from silica-related diseases - such as silicosis, lung cancer, other respiratory diseases and kidney disease - and to prevent more than 900 new cases of silicosis each year.
About 2.3 million workers are exposed to respirable crystalline silica in their workplaces. The majority of these workers, about 2 million, are in the construction industry.