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Answering Your Questions on Silica Compliance

During the Fund’s latest silica webinar, OSH Division staff answered many questions from the field about compliance with OSHA’s silica standard. Fund staff have also been providing contractor assistance upon request since the standard went into effect in 2016. Below, we’ve collected answers to some of the most common questions we’ve received recently, which are quite different than the questions we answered in 2016.

Can contractors comply with the standard by only putting workers in respirators?

Respirators may still be used or required. However, because much of the silica standard is driven by task, tool and control use, it’s not as simple as putting workers in respirators to keep them below the permissible exposure limit (PEL). Unlike many prior OSHA standards, this one requires employers to control dust at the source as the primary method for employee protection.

For tasks on Table 1, contractors’ first step should be using the integrated water and dust controls detailed in the standard. Each of the 18 tasks on Table 1 lists the required control measures and whether workers need to wear respirators if the task will last for less than or more than four hours.

For tasks not on Table 1, contractors must still use alternative control methods that are at least as protective as the tools with integrated controls and the work practices in Table 1. In addition, contractors must have supporting documentation verifying workers are adequately protected.

What does OSHA mean by the term “feasible” in the standard?

The silica standard requires contractors to use engineering controls unless it’s not feasible to do so. In the eyes of OSHA, feasible means capable of being done. In other words, if commercially available tools with integrated water and dust controls exist, OSHA considers it feasible to use them. Cost is not a consideration of feasibility.

In addition, tool availability (e.g., out of stock or production delays) does not affect feasibility. OSHA views tools for silica-generating tasks the same way they view other construction materials that are a normal part of the project. Just like contractors wouldn’t start a project without enough concrete or without a ladder, they shouldn’t start generating silica dust without the necessary tools to control that dust.

Do contractors need to protect workers from silica dust within a certain area?

The silica standard does not designate a specific distance from a dust source that contractors have to protect workers. Contractors need to determine the silica work area, outside of which exposures do not exceed the PEL. Contractors are required to have a plan and procedures for restricting access to silica work areas. In addition, contractors must limit the number of employees exposed to silica generated by other employers or self-employed workers.

Contractors must control access to silica work areas where dust is being generated and provide protection to all workers in the area. A good rule of thumb is that if workers performing dust-generating tasks need a respirator, all workers in the silica work area need a respirator.

This question in particular shows why the new standard emphasizes engineering controls over putting workers in respirators. Controlling dust at the source with water or local exhaust ventilation is extremely effective and goes a long way toward protecting all workers in the area. Respirators can only protect one worker at a time even in a best case scenario.

Can contractors rotate workers to limit worker exposure below four hours?

Yes, contractors can rotate workers to reduce silica exposure. Many contractors are using this work practice to keep worker exposure below four hours and avoid both the medical surveillance requirements for workers who wear respirators and compliance with OSHA’s respiratory protection standard. Contractors should be sure to document these efforts.

What is the difference between OSHA’s respiratory standard and the silica standard’s respirator requirements?

OSHA’s respiratory protection standard protects workers pre-exposure by ensuring they are not exposed over the PEL, are healthy enough to wear a respirator and that respirators are properly fitted and maintained.

The silica standard protects workers post-exposure by using medical surveillance to determine whether silica exposure is having a harmful effect on worker health. This allows contractors and workers to make informed decisions about future silica exposure. For more on this topic, see our November 2017 article, “Diving into Medical Surveillance in the Silica Rule.”

Can a Laborer participate as a silica competent person under the standard?

Yes. Employers can designate anyone as a competent person as long as they have the training to identify hazards and are authorized to correct those hazards. The LIUNA Training and Education Fund has a silica training program that can help provide the training necessary to designate an employee as a silica competent person.

What is the current level of enforcement for the silica standard?

Thus far in 2018, enforcement has been very gradual, with OSHA doing more compliance assistance than issuing citations. Although all aspects of the standard are now in effect, we are seeing more of an emphasis on compliance with engineering controls rather than compliance with the standard’s other requirements. Reports are that OSHA is taking more of an educational role with contractors unless they repeatedly violate the standard.

LHSFNA Resources

The LHSFNA offers a collection of publications that can help LIUNA signatory contractors stay in compliance and protect workers from overexposure to silica. To order, visit the Fund’s online Publications Catalogue by going to and clicking on Publications.

LIUNA District Councils, Local Unions, signatory contractors and other LIUNA affiliates can also watch the Fund’s latest silica webinar by going to our homepage and clicking on Webinar Archive. If you have other questions about the silica standard we didn’t answer here, please reach out to the Fund’s OSH Division at 202-628-5465.

[Nick Fox]

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