The air your workers breathe could be killing them. Respirable silica is a known health hazard. Because silica has many applications in the construction industry, construction site managers and employers should be aware of the risks and know how to manage them with a silica exposure control plan.
Silica Dust in Construction
According to the CDC, silica dust, also called respirable crystalline silica, can cause silicosis, lung cancer, pulmonary tuberculosis and airway diseases. It may also contribute to other health problems, including autoimmune disorders and chronic renal disease. Silicosis is a fatal and irreversible lung condition associated with respirable crystalline silica.
Approximately 2.3 million U.S. workers are exposed to silica, and 2 million of these workers are in the construction industry. Silica is a naturally occurring mineral that is often used in construction. Construction workers may be exposed to silica dust when they are engaged in sandblasting, jack hammering, drilling, brick cutting or sawing, tunneling, demolition, asphalt milling, tuckpointing and other tasks that release silica into the air.
Protecting Construction Workers
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) researchers have found that exposure to silica dust should not exceed 50 micrograms per cubic meter as a time-weighted average.
Employers can reduce exposure to silica by providing respirators to workers, limiting time spent around silica dust and avoiding silica materials. NIOSH also says that engineering controls can be very effective at reducing exposure. For example, water sprays can keep dust out of the air, and local exhaust ventilation systems can remove dust. NIOSH provides more information on engineering controls to accompany jackhammering, cut-off saws, tuckpointing and concrete grinders.
OSHA’s Silica Standards for Construction
OSHA has a silica standard specifically for the construction industry, as well as a separate standard for other industries. The standard applies to work environments where silica exposure may exceed 25 micrograms per cubic meter as an eight-hour time-weighted average.
Construction employers can comply with the standard by using specified exposure control methods or alternative exposure control methods. A written silica exposure control plan is required (see resource here), and medical surveillance must be provided at no cost. The standard also includes requirements for housekeeping methods. Dry sweeping and brushing can increase silica exposure, and the standard has guidelines to prevent this risk.
Failure to comply can put your workers’ health at risk. It can also expose your company to OSHA fines and liability. According to Bloomberg Environment, a highway contractor in Virginia was facing penalties of $304,130 for violations of the silica standard in 2018. Construction Dive reports that 116 citations were given in a six-month period.
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