Workers in the construction industry and other industrial occupations may be breathing a little easier in the very near future. Today the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) published a proposed rule to mitigate occupational exposure to respirable crystalline silica (silica dust). Silica dust is a dangerous substance well-known for causing lung disease, lung cancer and silicosis. The proposed rule is long overdue and worker safety and health advocates are cheering at its arrival, though caution that there is more work to be done.
Silica dust is currently a major concern for construction workers and workers in other industries. Respirable silica dust particles cannot be seen with the human eye, and it only takes a small amount of airborne silica dust to create a major health hazard.
Silica dust is created by cutting, grinding and drilling materials such as asphalt, brick, cement, concrete, drywall, grout, mortar, stone, sand, and tile. In other words, materials which can be found on almost every construction site across the United States.
The proposed OSHA rulemaking is long overdue, but upon reading, it is clear that the proposal doesn’t quite go far enough. For example, there was an expectation that OSHA would require employers to develop and implement written exposure control plans for construction sites. Sadly, such language is nowhere in the document.
Written exposure control plans have long been a part of many of the safety and health standards promulgated by OSHA. Such plans are a systematic way for employers to assess if a hazard exists at their workplaces, which occupations or tasks expose employees, and what steps will be taken to eliminate or control exposure to the hazard. To our dismay, OSHA is proposing that employers only be required to put a written exposure control plan in place when it is “feasible,” (pg. 51).
An example of a written exposure control plan would include engineering and work practice controls, air monitoring, hygiene procedures and a list of tasks employees perform which may result in exposure to silica dust.
It is shocking that OSHA has not included this simple measure to protect construction workers from silica dust. Creating a written program is hardly a burden on industry and the results could save many construction workers’ lives.
We applaud OSHA for issuing the proposal, and in the weeks to come we will be looking at other areas of concern with the proposed silica rule.
Keith Wrightson is the workplace safety expert for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch. Keep up with Public Citizen’s workplace health and safety work by following @SafeWorkers on Twitter