Silica in Construction, 3 Years Later: What We’ve Learned


OSHA announced the final rule concerning worker protection from occupational exposures to respirable crystalline silica in March of 2016. Enforcement of the standard began in September of 2017. 

That rule provides two options for compliance: Employers can either assess exposure and implement controls on a task-by-task basis to ensure exposure falls below the permissible exposure limit (PEL) or use the engineering and work practice controls listed in Table 1 of the standard.

On August 15, 2019, OSHA released a request for information (RFI) to help the agency assess the effectiveness of the existing standards and seek comments on how it might be improved. 

Here are the specific areas of concern from that RFI:

  • OSHA requested information on the effectiveness of engineering and work practice control methods not currently included for the tasks and equipment listed on Table 1
  • OSHA asked for information on tasks and equipment involving exposure to respirable crystalline silica that are not currently listed on Table 1, along with information on the effectiveness of engineering and work practice control methods in limiting worker exposure to respirable crystalline silica when performing those tasks.
  • OSHA sought information and comment on whether there are additional circumstances where it would be appropriate to permit employers covered by the Respirable Crystalline Silica standards for general industry and maritime to comply with the silica standard for construction

October 15, 2019, was the deadline given to those concerned to respond to OSHA’s request. There has been no word yet on whether the opinions submitted will result in further changes to the standard, yet there are ambiguities in Table 1 that construction firms can move to correct now.

Silica in Construction Observations by FACS Industrial Hygienists

Here are our notes on what we’ve seen and learned about the OSHA silica standard over the past three years:

  • Table 1 is not a one-size-fits-all program. It was a limited list to begin with that only covered 18 work practices. 
  • Contractors regularly face complex construction challenges that require creative solutions resulting in the use of methods that are not in Table 1. Even when many tasks for a project are on Table 1, there are usually a few that aren’t there or controls that are noted, but not achievable (e.g., use of wet methods for handheld power saws on the 24th floor of a building under construction).  
  • When a task is not covered in Table 1, or an employer can not meet the specific requirements under Table 1 for the listed task, OSHA requires that either an exposure assessment be performed or the employer provide objective data sufficient to accurately characterize employee exposures. 
  • If the result of the exposure assessment is exposure above the action level, the work task is considered regulated under the standard and further action (written exposure control plan, worker training, possibly respiratory protection, possibly medical evaluation) is required. 
  • Regardless of the results of exposure monitoring, engineering controls are always recommended to further reduce exposures.
  • When an employer develops sufficient exposure assessment to determine that no exposures above the action level are likely for the task assessed, a negative exposure determination may be made. In those cases, no further exposure assessment is required. However, should the engineering controls, work practices, or task conditions change such that increased exposure is possible, further exposure assessment is required. 

Exposure assessment data can be carried from one job site to another, assuming like tasks, conditions, and work practices. Your company, though, must collect and document exposure assessment data to support your selection of compliance methods for each task. 

Companies may also collaborate to develop exposure assessment data that covers similar tasks across multiple organizations and use that objective data criteria as outlined in the standard. 

By collecting exposure assessment and objective data, your company can develop an internal addition to Table 1: a list of tasks that are determined to not expose workers to regulated levels of respirable crystalline silica when the documented controls and work practices are followed.

An effective silica management program requires an ongoing commitment to a process that includes internal collaboration between your health and safety management team and field supervisors. Focus points include preparing for upcoming silica work, interpretation of existing exposure assessment data and how it might apply to new projects, regular auditing of written compliance plans, and continued training and education to take advantage of new technologies on the market.  

FACS is continually engaged with multiple partners to perform silica work in the field, stay informed on new technologies, and test tools designed to monitor and control silica exposures. FACS teams are at work daily collecting and tracking exposure assessment data and helping construction teams solve on-the-job problems. Each situation provides experience that leads to further understanding about what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. Protecting workers against exposures to respirable crystalline silica is a critical job. There is little tolerance for error. 

If you’re struggling to stay on top of rules and methods concerning worker protection from occupational exposures to respirable crystalline silica, you can get information by phone at (888) 711-9998 or by using the FACS contact form.