OSHA Silica Construction Standard: Violations Since Enforcement Began


Back on March 25, 2016, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) published the final rule on two new standards to help protect workers and control their exposure to respirable crystalline silica, one for the construction industry and one for general industry/maritime. The 29 CFR 1926.1153 construction standard’s requirements became enforceable on September 23, 2017, except for the requirements for lab evaluation of exposure samples [29 CFR 1926.1153(d)(2)(v)], which went into force on June 23, 2018. OSHA did give a 30-day compliance assistance/good faith period to help employers and then began full enforcement on October 23, 2017.[i]

But what has happened in terms of enforcement? Since the construction silica standard became fully enforceable there have been over 1,000 violations cited to businesses by federal OSHA inspectors.[ii]
What steps should you take to help avoid injuries, penalties and achieve compliance? Let’s take a look.

Many of these infractions are often discovered and cited when inspectors are at a location and find violations to other regulations on a site. Overall, the majority of OSHA silica construction standard violations arise from the improper use of Table 1 (described below), lack of proper exposure monitoring, not having a proper written exposure plan and hazard communications violations due to inadequate training for employees on the hazards of silica and how to protect themselves, and failure to properly implement a respiratory protection program.

Most of these violations are categorized as ‘serious’ because of the adverse health effects that can result from overexposure to respirable crystalline silica. Download this handy checklist infographic and check out our OSHA silica page for a wide variety of resources to help you comply with the standard.

Conduct Proper Air Monitoring and Exposure Assessments

Most violations so far have arisen from failing to conduct an appropriate exposure assessment for respirable silica. This major source of infractions is often due to employers’ inadequate or absent air monitoring. This may be because there is still some confusion about how to properly apply ‘Table 1: Specified Exposure Control Methods When Working with Materials Containing Crystalline Silica’ under this OSHA silica construction standard. Table 1 requires the proper use of certain dust control methods that have been shown to be effective for the several common construction tasks identified by U.S. OSHA. Some tasks and operations require that a respirator also be used. Table 1 also takes into consideration the duration of the task.

Employers who follow Table 1 correctly are not required to measure workers’ exposure to silica to comply with the new permissible exposure limit (PEL) 50 μg/m3 as an 8-hour TWA or action Level (AL) (25 μg/m3 as an 8-hour TWA). However, if Table 1 cannot be applied, employers must actually measure the silica generated by the task, by completing an exposure assessment to determine the level of silica exposure. This assessment may be conducted by performance methods that include a combination of air monitoring or objective data.

Whether exposure assessment is completed by using Table 1 or the specified alternative methods above, accurate exposure assessment throughout a construction site is critical for several reasons, including:

  • Understanding which job classifications, tasks or equipment must be included in an employer’s written exposure control plan
  • Identifying employees who must be trained on silica hazards and controls
  • Determining which workers must wear respiratory protection (and undergo a medical evaluation, fit testing, and training for respirator use)
  • Pinpointing employees who need to be covered by the employer’s medical surveillance program

One other related group of penalties, and what may be another source of confusion when it comes to this complex silica standard, involves employers who fail to comply with OSHA’s required engineering, work control methods, and respiratory protection requirements in Table 1 for different lists of equipment and tasks, to help reduce worker exposure to respirable crystalline silica. If an employer is using Table 1 but does not have all of the required controls “fully and properly implemented”, an OSHA inspector may be required to conduct air monitoring to determine if the exposure is greater than the action level or PEL to determine if they are in compliance.

To ensure compliance with Table 1, employers must use ALL of the controls listed in a specific task including required respiratory protection and ensure that the controls are working properly for the duration of the task. For more information about this, please consult the full 29 CFR 1926.1153 construction standard’s requirements as well as the interim enforcement guidance issued by OSHA dated October 19, 2017 and any proposed changes issued by U.S. OSHA.

Have a Sufficient Written Exposure Control Plan

Another commonly cited area producing penalties has been if an employer lacks having a proper written exposure control plan (WECP) that is site-specific. A WECP should include:

  • Identifying and describing workplace tasks that involve exposure to silica
  • Laying out the engineering controls, work practices and respiratory protection being used to limit employee exposure to silica for each task
  • Detailing housekeeping measures used to limit exposure to silica
  • Spelling out what procedures should be used to restrict access to work areas in order to minimize the number of employees exposed to silica

A designated competent person who is qualified to implement this program must remain on the worksite. This person also has the authority to take prompt corrective measures.

Provide Silica Specific Training

On a related note, inspectors have issued numerous violations for lack of proper training. Not only must employers take action to help protect workers from silica overexposure, there is an express requirement to educate them about the health effects of silica exposure, the tasks which may expose them to silica and the controls to help prevent overexposure. Workers who are exposed above the new action level must receive training in a language and vocabulary that they can understand. Employers should inform affected workers about the site-specific WECP controls and housekeeping methods in place to help protect them as well as the medical surveillance program in effect.

If employees work with silica-containing products, they must also be trained under the OSHA Hazard Communication Standard 29 CFR 1910.1200. It is important to note that U.S. OSHA has the authority to issue duplicate citations if each standard, the new construction silica and the hazard communication standard, are not complied with for training.

Properly Implement a Respiratory Protection Program Where Required

In addition, for those workers who must wear respiratory protection under the employer’s WECP or because they are conducting a task that falls under Table 1, a proper respiratory protection program must be implemented according to 29 CFR 1910.134. A respiratory protection program: must be written, have an administrator, requires proper exposure assessment, proper respirator selection, requirements for maintenance use and care, and training must be provided, along with fit testing and a medical evaluation to ensure that the worker can safely wear the assigned respirator.[iii] The program must also be evaluated to ensure effectiveness.

It is important to note that citations have also been issued for respiratory protection lapses, failure to properly operate the necessary medical surveillance program, and violations of different types of housekeeping provisions.

Fortunately, according to a review of the data provided by OSHA on these violations, many of these infractions have/can be abated and could even be corrected prior to inspection. Download this handy interactive checklist to help you comply with the standard. Check out the following silica resources to help you avoid unnecessary exposure and injuries for your workers, as well as the full standard, interim guidance provided by OSHA, and this blog that includes excerpts of the extensive OSHA FAQ that addresses how workers who perform Table 1 tasks should be handled.

And what about states adopting their own silica standards for construction based on the federal regulation? Most state plan states have adopted a version that is similar. You should check your state’s regulations and any guidance they have issued as well as the information about citations that have been issued related to silica.

For help with silica standard compliance, including selecting appropriate PPE for your workers and training, we encourage you to contact us for assistance today and sign-up to receive helpful resources and updates.

[i] The 29 CFR 1910.1053 general industry and maritime silica standard became enforceable on June 23, 2018, with the same 30-day compliance assistance period. This does exclude though an action level (AL) trigger for medical surveillance requirements (delayed enforcement to June 23, 2020) and certain requirements relating to engineering control requirements of hydraulic fracturing operations (delayed enforcement to June 23, 2021).
[ii] Compiled from pulling stats from the OSHA violations database through September 9, 2019.
[iii] https://www.assp.org/news-and-articles/2018/06/27/osha-silica-enforcement-behind-the-statistics