In March 2016, OSHA altered its rules on silica exposure and put the entire construction industry in an uproar. The biggest issue construction organizations have with the new OSHA ruling is that it will increase the costs of operations well beyond the OSHA estimates. In the area of worker health, silica exposure is a very hot topic. With diseases such as lung cancer being a potential end result for this type of exposure, OSHA has decided to not take any chances when it comes to exposure levels.
What Is Silica?
Silica is found in the most common construction materials such as brick, concrete, rock, clay, and stone. The form of silica that is the most dangerous is a microscopic rock called crystalline silica, that can be released into the air whenever these basic construction materials are disturbed. That means that anyone who cuts, sandblasts, mixes, or demolishes these materials could be breathing in a dangerous particle they cannot even see with the naked eye.
Construction Dive indicates that crystalline silica is 100 times smaller than a particle of sand, which means that those clouds of dust you see coming from construction sites could be extremely dangerous. In March 2016, OSHA lowered the safe level for crystalline silica from 250 micrograms per cubic meter to 50 micrograms per cubic meter. According to the experts at OSHA, this could help save almost 600 lives per year in the construction industry.
Why Are Construction Organizations Angry With This Decision?
The Construction Industry Safety Coalition (CISC) indicates that lowering the legal level for crystalline silica to 50 micrograms per cubic meter is nearly impossible to achieve. But it isn’t just the new lower monitoring levels that the CISC is complaining about. Along with lowering exposure through either new engineering methods or creating work areas with better ventilation, OSHA is also forcing contractors to:
- Provide protective masks in conditions that cannot meet the new monitoring levels
- Develop a written plan to limit worker exposure to crystalline silica
- Pay for regular health examines to monitor silica exposure
- Hold regular training sessions on reducing silica exposure
- Provide additional information to any worker who has been exposed to silica levels over the legal minimum
OSHA has estimated that these new processes will cause a manageable increase in costs of $500 million to the construction industry every year. But the CISC insists that the costs would be more in the area of $5 billion extra per year, which is something the construction industry cannot withstand.
Why Is OSHA Doing This?
For OSHA, these rule changes are a simple matter of protecting workers. Two of the more serious conditions that
can be caused by silica exposure are silicosis and lung cancer. Silicosis is an incurable disease that could go on for years before it is even detected by the worker. Once it is detected, there is no way to improve a worker’s condition and the worker may be forced to give up their job because their body can no longer take the abuse.
OSHA estimates that these new regulations will protect almost two million American construction workers every year, and will prevent 900 new cases of silicosis from being diagnosed in construction workers. Construction industry representatives maintain that the previous levels were safe, and the old laws for monitoring and helping workers who were exposed to significant amounts of crystalline silica were effective.
The CISC and other construction advocacy organizations have filed official legal challenges to all of the new silica exposure rules that OSHA has issued. The industry maintains that the new methods are too cost-prohibitive and that they do not allow for contingency issues that could raise costs even more. For example, construction companies are unclear as to what they are supposed to do if medical testing does turn up a condition associated with silica exposure, and there are also questions as to how these new rulings affect the hiring process in the construction industry.
While construction industry groups want to protect worker health, they also want the industry to be able to thrive in a growing economy. These groups are implying that OSHA did not think these new rules through and that OSHA does not understand the far-reaching implications of these rules. With worker health being a key issue to OSHA and construction companies, it will be interesting to see if the two sides can come to an agreement that benefits everyone.