WASHINGTON, D.C. - The Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued rules limiting exposure by workers to crystalline silica, aiming to curb lung cancer, silicosis and other ailments suffered by those cutting engineered stone countertops and surfaces, and similar materials.
 Last year a hazard alert was issued by OSHA and NIOSH regarding countertops. Employers have already been protecting workers from harmful exposure to respirable crystalline silica for years, using widely-available equipment that controls dust with water or a vacuum system. The dangers of respirable silica were documented by the U.S. Department of Labor in a 1938 report.


OSHA issues warning on countertop silica dust

Countertop workers are in serious danger from silica dust emitted in cutting, finishing and even installing countertops, say the Occupational Health & Safety Administration and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which jointly issued a hazard alert. 

The department set standards to limit worker exposure in 1971, when OSHA was created, but the department says the standards are outdated did not include new industries such as stone or artificial stone countertop fabrication and hydraulic fracturing.

The OSHA rule sets two standards, one for construction and a separate one for general industry and maritime sectors. A total 2.3 million workers could breath in crystalline silica in their workplaces, including 2 million construction workers who drill, cut, crush, or grind silica-containing materials such as concrete and stone, and 300,000 workers in general industry operations such as brick manufacturing, foundries, and oil fracking work.
OSHA believes the rule could save over 600 lives and prevent more than 900 new cases of silicosis each year, with net benefits of about $7.7 billion annually by reduing medical and other expenses. Both standards contained in the final rule take effect on June 23, 2016, after which industries have one to five years to comply with most requirements.
Construction rules June 23, 2017, one year after the effective date; General Industry and Maritime - June 23, 2018, two years after the effective date.Key measures in the rule were summarized bu OSHA:
  • Reduces the permissible exposure limit (PEL) for respirable crystalline silica to 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air, averaged over an 8-hour shift.
  • Requires employers to:
    • use engineering controls (such as water or ventilation) to limit worker exposure to the PEL;
    • provide respirators when engineering controls cannot adequately limit exposure;
    • limit worker access to high exposure areas;
    • develop a written exposure control plan;
    • offer medical exams to highly exposed workers; and
    • train workers on silica risks and how to limit exposures.
  • Provides medical exams to monitor highly exposed workers and gives them information about their lung health.
  • Provides flexibility to help employers — especially small businesses — protect workers from silica exposure.

OSHA says a full review of scientific evidence, industry consensus standards, and extensive stakeholder input provide the basis for the final rule, which was proposed in September 2013. The rule-making process allowed OSHA to solicit input in various forms for nearly a full year. The agency held 14 days of public hearings, during which more than 200 stakeholders presented testimony, after which OSHA says it made substantial changes, including enhanced employer flexibility in choosing how to reduce levels of respirable crystalline silica, while maintaining or improving worker protection.

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