How to Protect Your Team from the Effects of Silica - Worksite Medical
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There is an unassailable scientific reason that OSHA and state OSHA authorities have regulations to protect workers from exposure to respirable crystalline silica. The goal: to reduce the risks of life-altering and deadly diseases; or, more simply, the effects of silica.

In the United States, 2.3 million people are exposed to crystalline silica through the course of their work. Respirable crystalline silica dust is a recognized health hazard, and employers are responsible for keeping their workers protected.

As a business owner or manager, nothing is more important than the health and well-being of your team. That’s why we’re passionate about raising awareness around the dangers of silica exposure and providing practical solutions to keep your employees safe.

Such life-altering hazards include: Developing kidney disease, autoimmune diseases, and non-malignant respiratory impairments such as COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), emphysema, and chronic bronchitis.  Deadly and irreversible diseases such as lung cancer and silicosis have no cure; prevention is the only option.

Here, we’ll dive into a few insights on how to protect your team from the harmful effects of silica dust.

Let’s break it down.


Related Article: New OSHA Initiatives to Combat Silica Exposure in Engineered Stone Industry

Related Article: Breaking Down the Silica Physical Exam


Understanding the Risks of Silica Exposure


Silica is a naturally occurring mineral found in materials like sand, stone, and concrete.

Silica dust [or respirable crystalline silica] comprises tiny particles created when cutting, sawing, drilling, grinding, and crushing rock and stone. Inhaling these particles can lead to serious health issues like silicosis, lung cancer, and kidney disease. It’s crucial to recognize the risks and take proactive measures to safeguard your team.


OSHA Silica Standards


From 2016 to 2020, OSHA issued two separate silica standards – one for general industry and maritime (29 CFR 1910.1053), and the other for construction (29 CFR 1926.1153).

In Table 1 of the silica standard for construction work, OSHA outlined 18 tasks that may expose employees to respirable crystalline silica. These tasks range from the use of stationary and hand-held saws, to the operation of heavy equipment and utility vehicles for abrading and excavating silica-containing materials.

For each job, a hierarchy of engineering controls, work practices, and respiratory protection methods are specified to limit employee exposure to an airborne concentration of respirable crystalline silica of less than 50 μg/m3, calculated as an 8-hour time-weighted average (TWA).

Engineering controls include such things as wet methods, local exhaust ventilation, and isolation (such as in a ventilated control booth or enclosed cab). Wetting silica dust before sweeping is an example of a work practice.

Additionally, last fall, OSHA launched a compliance assistance and enforcement initiative aimed at silica exposures in the engineered stone fabrication and installation industries that supplements enforcement under the NEP.

The new initiative establishes procedures for prioritizing federal inspections to identify and ensure the prompt abatement of hazards in industries where workers face exposure to high levels of silica dust.


Silica Protection Methods


In order to protect against the effects of silica dust, you’ll need to incorporate the following:

  1. Implementing Engineering Controls

One of the most effective ways to reduce silica exposure is through engineering controls. This involves modifying equipment or processes to minimize dust generation. For example, using wet cutting methods or dust collection systems can significantly reduce airborne silica levels.

Of course, regular maintenance and inspection of these controls remains essential to ensure their effectiveness.


  1. Respiratory Protection

This works best after engineering and work practice controls have initially reduced exposure levels. As a result of lower exposure levels, less costly options and more flexibility may, for example, allow employers to provide approved half-mask respirators instead of full-face piece respirators.

While engineering controls should remain your primary line of defense, personal protective equipment (PPE) plays a vital role in protecting your team. Ensure your employees have access to NIOSH-approved respirators, such as N95 masks, and that they are properly trained on their use.

Encourage the use of other PPE like protective clothing, gloves, and goggles to minimize skin and eye exposure.


  1. Assess Exposure

To prevent exposure to respirable crystalline silica, employers must first “assess the 8-hour TWA exposure for each employee who is or may reasonably be expected to be exposed to respirable crystalline silica at or above the action level of 25 µg/m3 as an 8-hour TWA.”  Employers can then decide between two options for assessing exposures: the performance option, or the scheduled monitoring option.


  1. Staying Informed and Compliant

Staying up-to-date with the latest regulations and best practices is crucial for protecting your team from silica exposure. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has specific standards in place for general industry, construction, and maritime operations. Familiarize yourself with these standards and ensure that your organization is in full compliance.


  1. Developing a Comprehensive Silica Program

Besides the above-mentioned provisions to protect employees, OSHA silica standard also requires that employers establish, mark, and control access to areas where silica-containing operations take place.

Implementing a comprehensive silica program is crucial for maintaining a safe work environment. This program should include elements such as exposure monitoring, medical surveillance, and employee training. Regularly reviewing and updating your program based on changes in regulations, work processes, or employee feedback is essential for continuous improvement.

Also, employers must have a written exposure control plan which, among other elements, describes such things as housekeeping measures used to limit employee exposure to respirable crystalline silica.

Most importantly, employers must provide initial and periodic medical examinations.


Effects of Silica: OSHA Inspections and Citations


Between October 2018 & September 2019, OSHA conducted a total of 156 industry inspections and issued 394 citations of the silica standard for a total of $602,597. The construction industry was by far the largest sector fined, with 372 of the 394 citations totaling $589,882.

OSHA’s Respiratory Protection Standard fell to #7 in 2023, after ranking #3 in 2020 and 2022, and #2 in 2021, presumably due to increased Respiratory Protection Standard enforcement emphasis during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.


On-Site Silica Physical Exams


Medical surveillance testing helps employers like you to create OSHA-compliant occupational health & safety programs.

These required programs both reduce the effects of silica, and stay ahead of underlying health issues within in employees. And, they limit excessive workers’ compensation claims while keeping your company safe from OSHA fines and citations.

Worksite Medical brings the entire clinic right to your facility, at your convenience, with on-site medical surveillance testing.

From blood work and drug testing to OSHA physicals, flu shots and wellness events, we’ve got you covered.


Related: Breaking Down the Silica Physical Exam


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