OSHA Slashes PEL, Costs to Skyrocket


November 1, 2013

OSHA-proposed rule would cut permissible exposure limits to crystalline silica in half; MSHA to follow suit.


By K. Brad Oakley


On Aug. 23, 2013, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced a proposed rule that will drastically reduce the current Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL) for crystalline silica, an essential material found in the manufacturing, construction, mining, and oil and gas industries. The most common form of crystalline silica is quartz, which is found in most rock types, including sandstones, granite, and quartzites. The proposed rule will effectively reduce the current PEL by half, and will apply equally in general industry, maritime, and construction operations. Notably, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) announced in its Spring 2013 Unified Agenda (posted on July 3, 2013) that it will release a similar proposed rule in December 2013.

The proposed rule reduces the current PEL to 50 micrograms of respirable crystalline silica per cubic meter of air (50µg/m3) averaged over an eight-hour day. This proposed standard is supported by the recommendations of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). It appears that MSHA will propose this same reduced PEL when it releases its proposed rule later this year.

Industry experts estimate the annual cost of compliance with OSHA’s proposed rule on crystalline silica to be an astounding $658 million.

Additionally, employers must measure the amount of silica that workers are exposed to if it may be at or above an action level of 25 μg/m3 averaged over an eight‑hour day. The proposed rule also includes requirements for exposure assessment, preferred methods for controlling exposure, respiratory protection, medical surveillance, hazard communication, and recordkeeping. OSHA has also indicated that it will require primary reliance on engineering controls and work practices (rather than respiratory controls) to establish compliance. OSHA believes that engineering controls are reliable, provide consistent levels of protection to a large number of workers, can be monitored, allow for predictable performance levels, and can efficiently remove a substance from the workplace. Additionally, OSHA believes that the effectiveness of engineering controls does not generally depend on human behavior to the same extent as personal protective equipment.

Industry experts estimate the annualized cost of compliance to be an astounding $658 million. OSHA expects that hydraulic fracturing will be the industry most heavily affected by the proposed rule. Given the exponential growth of hydraulic fracturing operations in the United States, this industry faces enormous costs of complying with the proposed rule.

It is arguable whether requiring industry-wide compliance with a dramatically reduced PEL will result in significant protection against silica-related diseases. The experience of groups like the National Industrial Sand Association, whose member companies have a long-standing history of voluntarily compliance, demonstrates that compliance with the current PEL is more than enough to protect workers exposed to crystalline silica. OSHA compliance sampling, however, reveals a non-compliance rate greater than 30 percent, showing that greater enforcement of the current PEL is what is needed for a continued reduction in silica-related diseases.

The proposed reduced PEL is also problematic as few laboratories exist across the country with the ability to measure silica exposure accurately and reliably at such low concentrations. While OSHA asserts there are “numerous” accredited laboratories that may be able to accurately measure exposure levels at the proposed PEL, it hinted that implementation of the laboratory requirement may be necessarily delayed.

The proposed rule has been submitted for publication in the Federal Register. OSHA will hold informal hearings, open to the public, in Washington, D.C. These hearings are expected to begin on March 4, 2014. More information on the proposed rule may be found on OSHA’s website: http://www.osha.gov/silica/nprm.pdf.


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