On Thursday, March 24, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced the final rule on respirable silica dust exposure on construction sites. The construction industry has expressed serious concern about the reasonableness of the rule and the industry's ability to meet the requirements.

Silica dust is generated by tasks such as cutting or breaking concrete, grinding concrete, or sand blasting. OSHA determined that under the current exposure limit of 250 micrograms per cubic meter of air, workers were being exposed to unacceptable levels of dust that could lead to lung cancer, silicosis, chronic pulmonary disease, and kidney disease.

The new rule reduces the exposure limit to 50 micrograms. Employers are required to train workers to limit exposure and to provide respirators and “engineering controls” to limit silica exposure. The rule takes effect on June 23, 2016 and construction employers have until June 23, 2017 to comply. OSHA estimates that the cost of implementing this rule in the construction industry will be $659 million per year.

OSHA has issued a Fact Sheet on the new rule and what it means to construction contractors. Employers have two options for complying: measure worker exposure and decide how to comply or follow Table 1 of the rule, which defines control methods to be used for different tasks or equipment on a job site and exempts the employer from measuring. For example, handheld power saws must have an “integrated water delivery system that continuously feeds water to the blade.”

This rule was first proposed more than two years ago and went through extensive public and industry comment. In 2014, we interviewed industry experts about the impact (you can watch the video). Nonetheless, the Construction Industry Safety Coalition (CISC), a leading group opposing the rule, said it “contains some of the same problematic provisions that the CISC previously identified and shared with the agency.”

“NAHB has long advocated the importance of the rule being both technologically and economically feasible,” said Ed Brady, chairman of the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) and home builder and developer from Bloomington, Ill. “While we’re still reviewing the final rule, we’re concerned that it may not adequately address these issues and take into consideration real-world application.”

According to National Public Radio, Secretary of Labor Tom Perez commenting on the new rule said "We've known for over 40 years that it needed to be strengthened, and it has taken 40 years to strengthen it. Many people who are going to work right now and breathing unacceptable levels of silica dust are in for a brighter future." OSHA leader David Michaels said, "We're estimating that once it's fully in effect it will save about 600 lives a year” and prevent more than 900 cases of silicosis.

“Instead of crafting new and innovative ways to get more firms to comply with the current silica standard, which we know would save even more workers each year,” said AGC CEO Stephen Sandherr, “administration officials appear to have instead opted to set a new standard that is well beyond the capabilities of current air filtration and dust removal technologies. Wishing firms could meet this new but unattainable standard will undoubtedly deliver many positive headlines for the administration, but it will be all but impossible for most construction firms to comply with this new rule. We will continue our exhaustive review of this new regulation, consult with our members, and decide on a future course of action that will best serve the health and safety of millions of construction workers across the country.”

The new rule, according to the American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA), "is based on outdated data and could actually increase health and safety risks for road construction workers." ARTBA told OSHA that it may be doing more harm than good by requiring workers to wear respirators in hot environments, potentially exposing them to heat stroke and stress.

Still, in the meantime, concrete contractors should study the new rule and come up with a plan of action. All construction employers are required to have a written exposure control plan, designate a competent person to implement the plan, establish housekeeping practices to reduce exposure, and offer medical exams (X-rays and lung tests) every three years to workers exposed to silica in their jobs. To read OSHA's press release about the announcement of the new rule, click here.