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OSHA Respirable Crystalline Silica Standard for Construction [UPDATED]

Makita LXRH011 Brushless 1 in SDS-Plus Rotary Hammer drilling

Think you know everything about the OSHA silica dust standards and rules? Dust collection and mitigation have been a big topic overseas and domestically for years. The OSHA Respirable Crystalline Silica Standard protects workers from exposure to crystalline silica. The rule deals with construction environments as well as general industry and maritime. This lets employers address the issues and provide solutions for the specific conditions found in their workplaces. A recent report by the U.S. DOL has some concerns following the implementation of the 2017 rule.


The OSHA Respirable Crystalline Silica Standard became law in 2017. It brought with it increased business costs for mitigation. This necessarily drove up costs to consumers—but it also facilitated better working conditions and a path to a safer work environment. Since it affects both commercial construction companies as well as smaller residential construction and remodeling companies, the effects of the OSHA Respirable Crystalline Silica standard or rule are enormous once you take into account compliance costs, insurance, and potential penalties.

Be sure to check out our article on the OSHA Silica Dust Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL)

February 2020 Update

On February 5, 2020, the U.S. Department of Labor Revised the National Emphasis Program to Reduce or Eliminate Worker Exposure to Silica. It made the following changes:

  • Revised application to the lower permissible exposure limit for respirable crystalline silica to 50 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3) as an 8-hour time-weighted average in general industry, maritime, and construction;
  • Updated the list of target industries (as listed in the appendix of the NEP);
  • Compliance safety and health officers will refer to current enforcement guidance for RCS inspection procedures;
  • All OSHA regional and area offices must comply with this NEP, but they are not required to develop and implement corresponding regional or local emphasis programs; and
  • State Plans must participate because of the nationwide exposures to silica.

How We Got the OSHA Respirable Crystalline Silica Standard or Rule

OSHA claims that 1.85 million workers are currently exposed to respirable crystalline silica in construction workplaces. That number is awfully high, but it merely deals with people around those materials, not people negatively affected by overexposure. OSHA does give us another number that estimates 640,000 (roughly one-third) of these workers may have exposure to silica levels that would exceed the proposed permissible exposure limit (PEL).

The OSHA Respirable Crystalline Silica Standard puts some hard data and solutions in place to deal with these issues. Check out our article on Table 1 compliance for even more information on tools and systems.

When you talk about crystalline silica you’re talking about mixing, grinding/polishing, cutting, and drilling concrete as well as tuckpointing and using demo hammers. You also have to address rock crushing, drywall finishing, and using heavy equipment when moving concrete and dirt.

OSHA Respirable Crystalline Silica Standard

OSHA believes the Respirable Crystalline Silica Standard will save as many as 560 lives and prevent up to 1080 silicosis conditions per year in just the construction market alone. We’re continuing to see tools hit the market that address this standard and help mitigate silica dust exposure.

So far, OSHA has yet to force the use of apparatus designed to filter dust to the lungs in most scenarios. That would mean having to don some pretty bulky headgear!

What is Crystalline Silica?

Respirable crystalline silica is made up of particles that are 100 times smaller than ordinary sand (or less). Crystalline silica is found on beaches and playgrounds—and of course on job sites where concrete, tile, and masonry materials like brick, block, and mortar are being moved, cut, or otherwise manipulated. Workers can respirate crystalline silica when cutting, sawing, grinding, drilling, or even crushing or transporting these materials.

Major Provisions of the OSHA Respirable Crystalline Silica Standard

The OSHA Respirable Crystalline Silica Standard for construction forces employers to do the following:

  • Measure the amount of silica that workers are exposed to if it may be at or above an action level of 25 μg/m3 (micrograms of silica per cubic meter of air), averaged over an 8-hour day
  • Protect workers from respirable crystalline silica exposures above the PEL of 50 μg/m3, averaged over an 8-hour day
  • Limit workers’ access to areas where they could face exposure above the PEL
  • Use dust controls to protect workers from silica exposures above the PEL
  • Provide respirators to workers when dust controls cannot limit exposures to the PEL
  • Offer medical exams-including chest X-rays and lung function tests-every three years for workers exposed above the PEL for 30 or more days per year
  • Train workers on work operations that result in silica exposure and ways to limit exposure
  • Keep records of workers’ silica exposure and medical exams

Small Business Construction Alternatives

Fortunately for small businesses and construction companies, the OSHA Respirable Crystalline Silica Standard lets employers measure their workers’ exposure to silica and independently decide which dust controls work best in their workplaces. In this way, employers can use control methods indicated in the following table:

Exposure Control Methods for Grinders

OperationEngineering and Work Practice Control MethodsRequired Air-Purifying Respirator ≤4 hrs/dayRequired Air-Purifying Respirator ≥4 hrs/day
Using Hand-Operated GrindersUse a water-fed grinder that continuously feeds water to the cutting surface. ORNoneHalf-mask
Using Hand-Operated GrindersUse grinder equipped with a commercially available shroud and dust collection system operated and maintained to minimize dust emissions. Collector must be equipped with a HEPA filter and must operate at 25 cubic feet per minute (cfm) or greater airflow per inch of blade diameter.

NOTE: Additional specifications (wherever applicable):

• Prevent wet slurry from accumulating and drying.
• Operate equipment such that no visible dust is emitted from the process.
• When working indoors, provide sufficient ventilation to prevent the build-up of visible airborne dust.
Half-mask

Half-mask

TuckpointingUse a grinder equipped with a commercially available shroud and dust collection system. The grinder must be operated flush against the working surface and work must be performed against the natural rotation of the blade (i.e., mortar debris must be directed into the exhaust). Use vacuums that provide at least 80 cfm airflow through the shroud and include filters at least 99 percent efficient.

NOTE: Additional specifications:

• Operate equipment such that no visible dust is emitted from the process.
• When working in enclosed spaces, provide sufficient ventilation to prevent the build-up of visible airborne dust.
Powered air-purifying respirator (PAPR) with a loose-fitting helmet or negative pressure full facepiecePowered air-purifying respirator (PAPR) with a loose-fitting helmet or negative pressure full facepiece

Exposure Control Methods for Jackhammers (Demo Hammers) and Rotary Hammers

OperationEngineering and Work Practice Control MethodsRequired Air-Purifying Respirator ≤4 hrs/dayRequired Air-Purifying Respirator ≥4 hrs/day
Using Jackhammers and Other Impact DrillersApply a continuous stream or spray of water at the point of impact. ORNoneHalf-mask
Using Jackhammers and Other Impact DrillersUse tool-mounted shroud and HEPA-filtered dust collection system.

NOTE: Additional specifications:

• Operate equipment such that no visible dust is emitted from the process.
• When working indoors, provide sufficient ventilation to prevent the build-up of visible airborne dust.
None

Half-mask

Using Rotary Hammers or Drills (except overhead)Use drill equipped with hood or cowl and HEPA-filtered dust collector. Eliminate blowing or dry sweeping drilling debris from the working surface.

NOTE: Additional specifications:

• Operate equipment such that no visible dust is emitted from the process.
• When working indoors, provide sufficient ventilation to prevent the build-up of visible airborne dust.
• Use dust collector in accordance with manufacturer specifications.
NoneNone

Exposure Control Methods for Masonry Saws

OperationEngineering and Work Practice Control MethodsRequired Air-Purifying Respirator ≤4 hrs/dayRequired Air-Purifying Respirator ≥4 hrs/day
Using Stationary Masonry SawsUse saw equipped with integrated water delivery system.

NOTE: Additional specifications:

• Change water frequently to avoid silt build-up in water.
• Prevent wet slurry from accumulating and drying.
• Operate equipment such that no visible dust is emitted from the process.
• When working indoors, provide sufficient ventilation to prevent the build-up of visible airborne dust.
• Ensure saw blade is not excessively worn.
NoneHalf-mask
Using Handheld Masonry SawsUse a water-fed system that delivers water continuously at the cut point.

• Used outdoors.
• Used indoors or within a partially sheltered area. OR



None
Half-mask



Half-mask
Half-mask
Using Handheld Masonry SawsUse saw equipped with local exhaust dust collection system.

• Used outdoors.
• Used indoors or within a partially sheltered area.

NOTE: Additional specifications:

• Prevent wet slurry from accumulating and drying.
• Operate equipment such that no visible dust is emitted from the process.
• When working indoors, provide sufficient ventilation to prevent the build-up of visible airborne dust.
• Use dust collector in accordance with manufacturer specifications.
Half-mask
Full facepiece











Half-mask
Full facepiece











Using Portable Walk-Behind or Drivable Masonry SawsUse a water-fed system that delivers water continuously at the cut point.

• Used outdoors.
• Used indoors or within a partially sheltered area.

NOTE: Additional specifications:

• Prevent wet slurry from accumulating and drying.
• Operate equipment such that no visible dust is emitted from the process.
• When working indoors, provide sufficient ventilation to prevent the build-up of visible airborne dust.
None
Half-mask







None
Half-mask







Exposure Control Methods for Drywall Finishing and Heavy Equipment

OperationEngineering and Work Practice Control MethodsRequired Air-Purifying Respirator ≤4 hrs/dayRequired Air-Purifying Respirator ≥4 hrs/day
Drywall Finishing (with silica-containing material)Use a pole sander or hand sander equipped with a dust collection system. Use dust collector in accordance with manufacturer specifications.

OR

Use wet methods to smooth or sand the drywall seam.
None None
Use of Heavy Equipment During EarthmovingOperate equipment from within an enclosed cab having the following characteristics:

• Cab is air-conditioned and positive pressure is maintained
• Incoming air is filtered through a prefilter and HEPA filter
• Cab is maintained as free as practicable from settled dust
• Door seals and closing mechanisms are working properly.
NoneNone

While the most common method of limiting exposure to silica dust on a construction site uses water, the best dust extractors also play a big part in mitigating airborne particles. This plays a large role in the OSHA Respirable Crystalline Silica Standard.


Festool CT 48 E AC Dust Extractor

What Happened Since the Silica Rule Became Enforceable?

Oddly enough, OSHA performed fewer inspections since the proposed rule became law. In fact, a September 29, 2021 report on a performance audit by the U.S. Department of Labor found that “OSHA’s diminished enforcement following the enforceable date of the final rule on September 23, 2017, may have left more workers at risk for exposure to silica.”

First, OSHA’s inspection data for the two fiscal years after the final rule became enforceable shows OSHA performed an average of 440 inspections annually. In contrast, for the two fiscal years before the final rule became enforceable, OSHA performed an average of 1,054 silica inspections per year. Therefore, after the final rule became enforceable, OSHA performed approximately 600 fewer silica inspections per year, a decrease of more than fifty percent.

Also, inspection data provided by OSHA was inconsistent with data extracted from OSHA’s publicly available database. Last, OSHA did not set clear goals and processes for evaluating whether outreach efforts sufficiently reached covered industries and 2.3 million workers at risk for silica exposure.

ImportantOSHA Respirable Crystalline Silica Standard Dates and Facts

  • March 2016: OSHA published its final rule on Workplace Injury and Illness Tracking
  • Rule Details: Requires companies with 20 or more employees submit an OSHA 300A summary of injuries electronically once a year. Companies with over 250 employees must submit quarterly electronic logs.
  • January 2017: OSHA published its final Walking Working Surfaces and Personal Fall Protection rule.
  • February 5, 2020: U.S. Department of Labor Revises National Emphasis Program to Reduce or Eliminate Worker Exposure to Silica

Final Thoughts

Do you work with tools that generate and release silica dust into the environment? How has your company handled the new rules and guidelines? Has it impacted your safety in a positive manner? How has it affected (if at all) your productivity and workflow? Let us know in the comments below.

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Forgotten user name

OSHA is non existent on anything other than commercial sites. In over twenty years I’ve never seen OSHA on a site that wasn’t commercial, UNLESS the local guy has a grudge against someone in particular.

Daniel Blankenberg

Rick Warner

Glen Starr

Really now we can’t even go to the beach! On the bright side, new revenue for oceanside business; spring breakers will have to buy dust masks at least .

David Phares

So, providing proper PPE won’t be enough anymore. You gotta love OSHA (not).

Steve M Stanton

How about using water? With PPE.

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