Exposure to crystalline silica in the workplace can cause serious damage and discomfort to workers in many industries. According to OSHA,
“Silica dust is hazardous when very small (respirable) particles are inhaled. These respirable dust particles can penetrate deep into the lungs and cause disabling and sometimes fatal lung diseases, including silicosis and lung cancer, as well as kidney disease.
Occupational exposure to respirable crystalline silica occurs when cutting, sawing, drilling, and crushing of concrete, brick, ceramic tiles, rock, and stone products. Occupational exposure also occurs in operations that process or use large quantities of sand, such as foundries and the glass, pottery and concrete products industries. OSHA estimates that more than 2.3 million workers in the United States are potentially exposed to dust containing crystalline silica with nearly 90% of those workers employed in the construction industry.”
Because of all the potential hazards to workers, OSHA has limited the Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs) for crystalline silica in the workplace to 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air (50 μg/m3) over a period of 8 hours in all covered industries, down from the previous PEL of 100 micrograms per cubic meter of air.
OSHA acknowledges that this reduced exposure limit is still dangerous, but notes that it is the lowest feasible limit for all industries involved. The new limit will also require technological upgrades in many industries, including the implementation of respirators in some, and there will definitely be moderate to serious compliance costs in most.
The final reduced PEL ruling has some changes from the proposed PELs that OSHA had earlier posted. For example, the proposed rule included provisions for protective clothing while the final rule does not, and the final rule includes a requirement that workplaces develop a written exposure control plan, which was not present in the proposed rule.