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New Recommendations to Limit Silica Exposure: What You Should Know

By Charlie Battler May 20, 2016

Silica Exposure

At high elevations and steep pitches, roofing can be hazardous work. But for years, many roofers have been exposed to another danger: silica.

A chemical compound that’s used in construction products, silica is dangerous when it’s crystalized and inhaled. The good news is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued a new rule that intends to curb lung cancer, silicosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and kidney disease by limiting exposure to respirable crystalline silica. The rule takes effect June 23, and the construction industry has a year to take the proper steps.

Roughly two million construction workers are exposed to crystalline silica when they drill, cut, crush or grind silica-containing materials such as concrete and stone.

The dangers of crystalline silica have long been documented in construction, but only recently has it also been tied to roofers. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) measured respirable silica levels up to four times the recommended exposure limit around roofers cutting cement products such as roofing tiles. Respirable silica exposure may also occur when blowers or dry sweeping methods are used to clean a roof.

As with any new federal regulation, the OSHA rules undoubtedly will give contractors pause about how they should protect their employees from silica. Here’s a quick review of what contractors need to do and how it will affect their working days.

First, the rule reduces the permissible exposure limit (PEL) for respirable crystalline silica to 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air, averaged over an 8-hour shift.

To reach that target, contractors must:

  • Use engineering controls like water or ventilation to mitigate exposure levels
  • Provide respirators when those controls cannot limit exposure
  • Limit worker access to high-exposure areas
  • Develop a written exposure plan
  • Offer medical exams to highly-exposed employees
  • Train workers on silica risks and best practices to eliminate exposure

OSHA says the new rule provides flexibility to help employers, particularly small businesses, protect workers from silica exposure. That flexibility can be seen in the time in which OSHA expects the construction industry to implement new protocols and procedures to reflect the new rule. For roofing contractors, that means they have until June 23, 2017, to comply with these new requirements.

The rule was proposed in 2013, and was finalized after a long process. OSHA held 14 days of public hearings, during which more than 200 stakeholders presented testimony and officials accepted more 2,000 comments, amounting to about 34,000 pages of material.

OSHA estimates the new rule will save more than 600 lives and prevent more than 900 new cases of silicosis annually once full implementation begins.

While any new regulation may seem like an inconvenience and prompt worries about buying new equipment and making drastic changes to work routines, the OSHA rule is placing the health of roofers and construction workers as a top priority. Any business worth its salt would surely agree.

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