Silica: The Silent Danger in Concrete
A brief history of the of the hazards associated with respirable crystalline silica, the OSHA standard and what this means for your business.
When people think of the dangers in construction, they often think of people falling off buildings, falling items landing on workers, and misuse of power tools. It turns out one activity that people often take for granted on a construction site, breathing, can be dangerous too. After years of research and investigation, OSHA has deemed respirable crystalline silica a serious hazard to workers in the construction industry. This blog will cover what crystalline silica is, a brief history of the of the hazards associated with respirable crystalline silica, and the OSHA standard to protect workers from exposure to respirable crystalline silica. We will also cover how Inside Edge and the industry are reacting to the new standard, and what that means for your business.
What is Silica
Crystalline silica is a common mineral found in materials like sand and quartz. These materials are used in the production of concrete, bricks, mortar and other products used in the construction industry. Crystalline silica becomes dangerous only when it is crushed, cut or abraded in some manner that breaks the crystalline silica particles into a size small enough to be respirable or inhaled. Respirable crystalline silica particles are more than 100 times smaller than a grain of sand.
These micro particles can become airborne in the form of dust, and if inhaled can increase the chances of of developing lung cancer, kidney disease, COPD, or Silicosis. Roughly 2.3 million workers are exposed to this dangerous mineral in their jobs in the U.S. alone. (OSHA, 2017)
History of Silica
The incident most often cited for raising awareness of the health hazards associated with high levels of exposure to respirable crystalline silica dates to the 1930s. During the construction of a tunnel that was to be used as a diversion for a river, workers mined large amounts of crystalline silica that could be used in steel processing. Without respiratory protection, or any proper equipment these workers were exposed to high levels of respirable crystalline silica dust, and many of them developed the lung disease silicosis. There is no way of knowing for sure just how many people died due to the high exposure level, but the federal government officially placed the death toll at 476. Other sources place the number of deaths attributable to this one mining operation at more than 1,000 of the approximately 3000 total workers.
In 2017 OSHA issued updated regulations that significantly lowered the maximum allowable exposure levels for respirable crystalline silica in the construction industry. The previous standard had been in existence for 45 years. The advancement in testing methods and equipment led to a better understanding of the adverse effects of exposure to relatively small amounts of respirable crystalline silica.
New OSHA Rules
The new rules enacted by OSHA are designed to reduce the amount of dust generated by workers on the job site because it is possible that a percentage of any dust created will contain particles of respirable crystalline silica. Tasks such as cutting, grinding, and drilling concrete, and even mixing powder materials or sweeping the floors will create dust containing respirable crystalline silica. Everything must be done to ensure that if a job site’s air is tested, there must be less than 25 micrograms of respirable crystalline silica in per cubic meter of air measured over an 8-hour day.
The new standard outlines several ways to avoid hazardous conditions if there is the potential to create a crystalline silica hazard. One way OSHA recommends reducing exposure level is to make physical changes to tools by adding dust control systems. Tools can be fitted with an integrated water delivery system that delivers a steady stream or spray of water at the point where the tool contacts the surface or they can be fitted with a special hood or shroud designed to keep the dust contained along with a HEPA vacuum attached to the hood or shroud to remove the dust. Tasks like dry sweeping will no longer be allowed if a hazard is identified. The simple task of cleaning a job site will now have to be done using water or a vacuum with a HEPA filter or by using approved sweeping compounds. In certain situations, workers will be required to wear respirators in addition to the dust control systems to protect them from inhaling respirable crystalline silica.
Beyond the physical steps to ensure the long-term health of employees, several other action items are required by the new OSHA rules as well. First, every employer must have what is referred to as a competent person designated for each job. This is an individual who has a thorough understanding of the requirements of the new standard, can recognize any existing or potential exposure hazards and has the authority to take immediate, corrective action to protect workers. Employers are also required to maintain records of all air monitoring activities and all medical surveillance reports for any employee required by the standard to submit to medical testing.
Silica, Inside Edge, and the Flooring Industry
As of September 23, 2017, OSHA began enforcing the new silica standard. These new rules have been challenging and costly in both time and money. Inside Edge has always prided themselves on being the leaders in every aspect of their work, including employee safety. They have worked diligently with both their internal installation teams and everyone in their network to ensure each installation is compliant with the new standard. They have purchased, installed, and trained installation employees on the proper use of new equipment and work practices to meet the requirements of the new standard. In addition to training installation employees, they have trained all sales and operation employees to ensure the entire company is aware of the new standard and its impact. Inside Edge is taking a proactive approach to addressing the new standard and will continue to monitor and adjust our work practices to ensure we are at the forefront of compliance.
What This Means for Your Business
Working with Inside Edge means that you are not only working with a proven leader in flooring installation, but also the one of the leaders in providing a safe environment for our construction partners, employees, and other on-site personnel. The new rules for respirable crystalline silica have caused every construction trade to assess their equipment and work practices. Inside Edge has made the required changes while working hard to limit the impact on construction schedules. These new regulations are complicated and challenging to implement. However, when you choose to work with Inside Edge, you can be assured that we are taking every precaution to assure a safe and compliant work site for our employees and our customers.
For more information on the rules and regulations visit: https://www.osha.gov/dsg/topics/silicacrystalline/
NPS. (2018, February 5). The Hawk’s Nest Tunnel Disaster: Summersville, WV. Retrieved from National Parks Service: https://www.nps.gov/neri/planyourvisit/the-hawks-nest-tunnel-disaster-summersville-wv.htm
OSHA. (2017). Silica. Retrieved from OSHA: https://www.osha.gov/dsg/topics/silicacrystalline/