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Silica National Emphasis Program a Reminder of Non-COVID-19 Hazards

In 2019, OSHA stepped up enforcement of compliance with its Trenching and Excavation standard after workplace fatalities tripled over a five-year span. The agency turned the spotlight on trench fatalities through the use of a National Emphasis Program (NEP) – a temporary program that focuses OSHA resources on certain hazards and high-hazard industries. OSHA uses inspection data, injury and illness data, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reports and other sources to determine new NEPs. Historically, NEPs do result in reduced fatalities and injuries.

LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan

In February, OSHA issued a NEP for respirable crystalline silica (RCS). National Emphasis Programs bring increased enforcement, but they are also structured to provide outreach and compliance assistance to employers. With a 90-day outreach period before any programmed inspections could begin, employers wouldn’t have seen inspections tied to the NEP until at least early May.

The problem with this timeline, of course, is the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. In last month’s issue, we covered how federal OSHA was relying heavily on its non-formal phone/fax program rather than in-person inspections due to COVID-19. With the recent announcement from federal OSHA that inspectors are resuming in-person investigations in some parts of the country, employers should be aware of the increased focus on compliance with the silica standard.

“First and foremost we need to protect ourselves against the insidious coronavirus, but as we do, we must not lose sight of the other dangerous hazards that we face every day in the construction industry,” says LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan. “LIUNA members and all construction workers need the proper protections and equipment in place to ensure they are not exposed to harmful levels of silica dust and other respiratory hazards.”

While the silica NEP applies to all industries, OSHA’s initial press release made it clear that the majority of inspections will occur in construction:

“Inspections will be targeted toward industries and worksites expected to perform tasks associated with RCS overexposures. … OSHA anticipates that the majority of the inspections will occur in construction because most exposures to RCS occur on construction worksites.”

Types and Symptoms of Silicosis

Chronic silicosis: 15-20 years of moderate to low exposure. Symptoms may not be obvious. The disease may present as shortness of breath during exercise, and in the later stages appear as fatigue, extreme shortness of breath, chest pain or respiratory failure.

Accelerated silicosis: 5-10 years of high exposure to respirable crystalline silica. Symptoms include severe shortness of breath, weakness and weight loss.

Acute silicosis: occurs from a few months to a few years following exposure to extremely high levels of respirable crystalline silica. Symptoms include severe shortness of breath, weakness and weight loss and often lead to death.

When explaining the reasons behind the NEP, OSHA cited a high rate of non-compliance in sampling data and that silica exposure poses a significant risk to a large number of workers. The announcement came on the heels of several workers in their thirties dying from silicosis due to cutting granite and stone countertops. This is particularly concerning since silicosis typically takes decades to develop; deaths of younger workers signal extremely high exposures over a much shorter period of time.

Loren Sweatt, OSHA’s Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor, was clear that OSHA is “doing silica inspections whether or not they are in the Emphasis Program. … Employers are responsible for protecting workers from this dust – there is a standard in place, they need to be in compliance with it, where they are not and we find it we will enforce.”

The Fund’s Occupational Safety & Health Division can assist LIUNA signatory contractors with reducing exposures for all workers on site through the implementation of engineering controls and work practices. These practices have been required since OSHA updated silica standard went into full effect in 2018. For assistance, contact the Fund’s OSH Division at 202-628-5465.

LHSFNA Resources

The Fund also maintains a collection of publications in both English and Spanish to help LIUNA signatory contractors and other LIUNA affiliates reduce worker exposures to respirable crystalline silica. These and other publications can be ordered through our online Publications Catalogue:

  • Controlling Silica Exposure in Construction
  • Controls and Respirator Use in the New Silica Rule
  • Preventing Exposure to Respirable Silica Dust toolbox talk
  • Silica health alert
  • Silica & Table 1: A Field Guide to Compliance
  • Silica Rule Compliance Flowchart
  • What Your Doctor Needs to Know About Silica

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