An Introduction to OSHA & Silica Law

Are you a homeowner embarking on a new remodeling project? This post is for your health-awareness and education.

​Sure, reading about regulations and laws is hardly ever exciting… but understanding the requirements will ensure that your health is not neglected.

First off, what is OSHA?

The department of labor administered the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSHA) to ensure that employers’ work environments are safe for workers.

OSHA is a federal law, but some states have their own OSHA laws. (You can find Washington State Plan here.) In short, OSHA requires employers to provide adequate training to their workers about hazardous substances, blood-borne pathogens, what to do in emergency situations, and what to do if an OSHA inspector comes to a workplace (an in depth discussion can be found here).

Enter Silica & compliance law

​Respirable Crystalline Silica is one of the hazardous substances that building professionals and remodelers work with. The final rule to protect workers has been put in place which required at least partial compliance by September 23, 2017 (delayed from June 23, 2017) for the construction standard.

Employers covered by the general industry and maritime standard must comply with most requirements of the standard by June 23, 2018.

What is Silica and why you need to be cautious?

Crystalline silica is a common mineral found in the earth's crust and is found in materials like soil, sand, granite, and mortar. Quartz is the most common form of crystalline silica.

It is also used to make products such as glass, pottery, ceramics, bricks, and artificial stone. You may also come across cristobalite and tridymite which are two other forms of crystalline silica.

Regardless, all three forms may become respirable size particles when workers chip, cut, drill, or grind objects that contain crystalline silica. Meaning, workers need care, caution and compliance in working with this substance, as the dust particles may get inhaled into the lungs through nose and mouth.

When should you, the homeowner, care?

Do you get involved with any of these activities?

  • abrasive blasting with sand;
  • sawing cutting brick or concrete;
  • sanding, drilling or jackhammering into concrete;
  • grinding mortar;
  • manufacturing brick, concrete blocks, stone countertops, or ceramic products;
  • and cutting or crushing stone?

If you answered yes. Then now, is when you should start caring and being cautious.

Silica becomes extremely hazardous in very small particles, respirable crystalline silica is at least 100 times smaller than ordinary sand and is created when cutting, sawing, grinding, drilling, and crushing stone, rock, concrete, brick, block, and mortar. This results in worker exposures to respirable crystalline silica dust.

In summary these construction activities may result in severe exposure when extreme caution should be taken:  jackhammering, rock/well drilling, concrete mixing, concrete drilling, brick and concrete block cutting and sawing, tuck pointing, tunneling operations.

What are the health effects?

Workers who inhale these very small crystalline silica particles are at increased risk of developing serious silica-related diseases, including:

  • Lung cancer. In fact, crystalline silica has been classified as a human lung carcinogen.
  • Silicosis, an incurable lung disease that can lead to disability and death
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Kidney disease

How is the damaged caused?

The respirable silica dust enters the lungs and causes the formation of scar tissue, thus reducing the lungs’ ability to take in oxygen.  There is no cure for silicosis. Since silicosis affects lung function, it makes one more susceptible to lung infections like tuberculosis.

About 2.3 million people in the U.S. are exposed to silica at work. Which makes it is extremely important that these regulations are followed for the safety of the worker and the homeowner – as dust travels and falls everywhere.

The New Law

To better protect workers exposed to respirable crystalline silica, OSHA has issued two new respirable crystalline silica standards: one for construction, and the other for general industry and maritime.

Employers are responsible for identifying and controlling workers' exposure to silica dust. Dusty operations can be successfully controlled through the use of wet or other methods of control.

What does the rule require?

​​The rule requires that employers limit workers' exposure to respirable crystalline silica dust, which can become airborne during tasks such as cutting, grinding, drilling, or crushing materials containing crystalline silica such as brick, concrete, sone or mortar.

​Typical methods to reduce or eliminate dust in the air include wetting down the operation or using local exhaust ventilation. In addition to requirements to limit workers' exposure, the rule requires employers to take other steps to protect workers, such as providing training to workers exposed to respirable crystalline silica and offering medical exams to highly exposed workers.

Who needs extra attention under the new rule?

In keeping with its separation of maritime and general industry vs. construction, the new rule articulates two different requirements.

  • In general industry and maritime, medical surveillance must “be made available to employees exposed to respirable crystalline silica at or above the action level of 25 μg/m3 as an 8-hour TWA [total weight average] for 30 or more days per year.”
  • In the construction industry, the new rule requires that medical surveillance be made available to employees who “use respirators for 30 or more days per year” in situations where those respirators are required by OSHA.

But what if an employee needs to wear a respirator for only a few minutes per day, for a short task?

Those instances count as an entire day toward the 30.

As OSHA explains in the rule: “OSHA clarifies that if an employee is required to wear a respirator at any time during a given day, whether to comply with the specified exposure control methods in paragraph (c) or to limit exposure to the PEL under the construction standard for respirable crystalline silica, that day counts toward the 30-day threshold.” 

Final Words

So, there you have it. The bottom line is that if you are starting to get involved in any remodeling projects, whether you are a building professional or a homeowner, you should always ask yourself “what are the health risks here?”. It might not even be silica, it might be asbestos, lead or even dust but they can all be detrimental to your health in the long run (even if you are not doing the work itself).

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Sources and further reading:

Full rule book on Silica Law:

About Olga Lockhart

Olga Lockhart, Marketing Manager for Pathway Design & Construction, researches, analyzes, and writes about these key topics: Universal Design, Aging in Place, Northwest building & Seattle remodeling trends, air quality issues, and solutions, during construction. She's also willing to chat about travel and culture out of the office.