OSHA Tackles Silica Inhalation Injury Risks: New Rules Proposed
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) last week announced plans to make huge reductions in the acceptable levels of silica dust that workers in just about any industry may be exposed to. Currently, there are two separate limits for silica dust exposure. For general industry, the limit is 100 micrograms per cubic meter of air, whereas the limit for construction workers is set at 250 micrograms per cubic meter. But the new proposed rule would set a single limit for all industries, which is 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air over an eight-hour average. This means the construction industry, which represents the biggest problem, will see an 80 percent reduction, while workers in most industries will see a 50 percent reduction.
In a given year, nearly two million workers in the US are exposed to silica dust. The largest number of exposures are in the construction trade, in part because of the higher exposure limits, but with the explosion in the use of fracking, the oil and gas industry is catching up. Exposure to excessive amounts of silica dust can saddle a worker with silicosis, which kills 200 workers annually, with 7,300 new cases diagnosed every year in the construction industry alone.
Exposure to silica dust puts workers at serious health risk because workers breathe in particles of silica dust, which get into the lungs and create a hardening and scarring of lung tissue, which leads to silicosis. The early symptoms of silicosis can include breathlessness, a chronic cough, and a fever, which later leads to a worsening of those symptoms, as well as chest pain, chronic fatigue and weight loss. Eventually, silicosis may lead to respiratory failure. In some cases, tuberculosis, COPD and even lung cancer can result. It is incurable, and often requires decades of medical treatment.
The CDC estimates that silicosis kills hundreds each year, and disables hundreds more. According to OSHA estimates, the new limits will prevent 1,600 new cases of silicosis each year, across the construction, glass and oil and gas industries. They also hope 700 lives will be saved annually with the new rules.
OSHA’s new limits are a welcome change that should save many lives in the oil and gas fracking industry, but only if employers follow the rules. Regardless of whether or not this rule passes, employers should be taking proactive steps to limit workers’ silica exposure, to protect them.