The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration proposed a new rule it intends would lower worker exposure to crystalline silica.  Silica, or silicon dioxide, is frequently found in manufacturing operations, notably foundries where sand is in use, but also in glassmaking and sand blasting. It’s also found in construction operations where cutting, sawing, drilling and crushing of concrete, brick, block or other stone products takes place.

The particular concern for OSHA is airborne silica. It stated that crystalline silica exposure contributes to workers susceptibility to lung cancer, silicosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and kidney disease.

“Exposure to silica can be deadly, and limiting that exposure is essential,” stated assistant secretary of labor Dr. David Michaels. “Every year, exposed workers not only lose their ability to work, but also to breathe. This proposal is expected to prevent thousands of deaths from silicosis—an incurable and progressive disease—as well as lung cancer, other respiratory diseases and kidney disease. We’re looking forward to public comment on the proposal.”

The proposed rule includes two separate standards, one for general industry and maritime employment, and one for construction. It established new exposure limits for respirable crystalline silica and identifies methods for controlling worker exposure, conducting medical surveillance, training workers about silica-related hazards, and recordkeeping.

The agency predicted that once the proposed rule’s effects are realized, it would save nearly 700 lives and prevent 1,600 new cases of silicosis every year.

“The proposed rule uses common sense measures that will protect workers’ lives and lungs—like keeping the material wet so dust doesn’t become airborne,” Michaels explained. “It is designed to give employers flexibility in selecting ways to meet the standard.”

OSHA emphasized that its proposal is based on a review of scientific and technical evidence, it said, and takes into consideration current industry consensus standards. It also incorporates the results of “outreach by OSHA to stakeholders, including public stakeholder meetings, conferences and meetings with employer and employee organizations.”

Currently OSHA enforces permissible exposure limits (PELs) for crystalline silica in general industry, construction and shipyards that were established up to 40 years ago. The agency described these PELs as “outdated, inconsistent between industries,” and inadequate.

The public has 90 days to submit written comments about the proposed rule, and that comment period will be followed by public hearings.

More information on the proposed rule, including a video, procedures for submitting comments, and public hearings can be found at www.osha.gov/silica.