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Safety Consultant Abby Ferri on How to Comply with OSHA’s Silica Rule for General Industry

Posted on May 1, 2018

In just about 6 weeks, June 23 to be exact, the enforcement period for OSHA’s new silica rule for general industry and maritime will begin. Like the construction final rule, which came into enforcement last September, the general industry standard significantly cuts the permissible exposure limit (PEL) for workers, as well as establishes requirements for methods to limit and monitor exposure.

To learn more about what inspectors will be looking for and how companies can comply, we spoke with Abby Ferri, President of The Ferri Group. Ferri has been advising manufacturers and other employers in various industries about safety and health for more than 15 years. Last fall, she served as a subject matter expert for our widely read article about the silica dust rule for the construction industry.

How is industry reacting to the new rule? Are employers ready for enforcement to begin?

“Employers need to get real with themselves that this is happening,” Ferri says. “Maybe 20% of employers impacted by this hazard have taken steps or have a full program in place. I’ve been surprised to learn that some employers I think are pretty proactive don’t even have a program.”

Ferri attributes the lack of readiness to a couple of factors. First, she notes that with the current administration, the regulatory atmosphere has changed. “Many people thought that when Trump was elected, we’d say goodbye to OSHA, so people have kept their heads down.”

But employers counting on a laxer regulatory environment may be disappointed — 2017 saw an uptick in OSHA inspections, the first increase in five years.

Especially with silica, for which the health problems have been known for a long time, Ferri believes the new rules are here to stay. She points to “Stop Silicosis,” a mining safety video produced in 1938 by the U.S. Department of Labor under the leadership of Frances Perkins. “The research on silica is out there. You can’t take it back,” Ferri says.

One thing that has happened on the regulatory side is a lack of certain actions we’d normally see prior to the beginning of an enforcement period, such as OSHA issuing letters of interpretation, which clarify exactly how the standards apply to specific workplace situations. “I don’t think there are any letters of interpretation for the silica standard yet,” Ferri says. “Companies have probably written in requests, but the letters haven’t happened.” These will likely start appearing once the enforcement period begins.

Another factor that Ferri sees as delaying companies’ compliance journey is that we haven’t yet seen many citations under the construction standard. This is because the standard came into enforcement in September, when construction season across most of the country was winding down. “We don’t have the history yet,” Ferri explains. “But we’re heading into a season where a lot of questions might be answered in the form of companies getting citations, which is how case law gets established.”

What will OSHA inspectors be looking for?

The main thing OSHA will be looking for, Ferri says, is a dust cloud. “That’s the first indication that they should probe. Based on what they see, they’ll talk to the employer or competent person about silica exposure and will ask for a written exposure control program. If the employer has exposure, but doesn’t have a program, there will be a problem and the inspector will have an industrial hygienist come in and do some sampling.”

Unlike what happened with the construction standard, which saw a 90-day enforcement delay followed by a 30-day “good faith effort” period, Ferri doesn’t believe there will be any relaxing of enforcement for general industry. “The standard has been published for more than a year. The time for good faith efforts has passed,” she says. “Silica is the new asbestos.”

How can employers ensure they’re not among those receiving citations for non-compliance?

“If your workers are exposed to silica, you need to establish a written exposure control program and you should be having discussions with your tool and equipment suppliers to make sure that equipment is in compliance, ” she says. “I’ve had employers bring me in for training when what they really need to do is understand their operations and where the exposures are.”

She also notes that infeasibility arguments aren’t likely to work when inspectors show up. “Very rarely will you have a true infeasibility argument. OSHA has been studying silica for a long time — it isn’t a new hazard, it’s just that employers have been getting away with it.”

Ferri offers several suggestions for employers to get up to speed with their compliance.

Applying construction’s Table 1 to general industry

Table 1 is a key aspect of the silica dust standard for construction. It provides a list of construction tasks paired with engineering and work practice controls to control exposure during those tasks. As long as a company follows Table 1, they don’t have to do additional exposure assessments — they’re automatically considered in compliance.

Ferri notes that Table 1 provides both a challenge and an opportunity for general industry employers.

The challenge

Since Table 1 is part of the construction standard, general industry companies don’t think they have to follow it. But in some cases, that’s exactly what they have to do.

Even for general industry, the construction standard applies when “the task performed is indistinguishable from a construction task listed on Table 1” and “the task will not be performed regularly in the same environment and conditions.” In these cases, which are common for tasks like grinding and jackhammering, general industry employers must follow Table 1.

The opportunity

Even though Table 1 is part of the construction standard, there’s nothing stopping a general industry employer from following it, even if they don’t have to. In fact, Ferri encourages employers to evaluate their tasks to understand if they truly are indistinguishable from construction tasks. Unless the tasks are being done in a fixed environment, they likely are indistinguishable, which means Table 1 should be followed.

Even if the tasks are done in just one location, Ferri recommends looking to Table 1. “If I were a general industry employer with tasks that match Table 1 and employees who do the same tasks in the same environment all of the time, I’d follow Table 1,” she says. “It’s straight from OSHA. In fact, it’s more conservative because it applies the engineering and work practice controls for multiple locations to tasks that people are doing in just one location.”

Training workers on the hazards of silica exposure

Ferri sees significant room for improvement in worker training. “You need to make sure your workers are aware of their exposure and of what silica actually does to a person. This is eye-opening — it’s like hazcom on steroids.”

She notes that when she talks with companies, she often encounters resistance to implementing engineering controls, but when she starts to talk about medical monitoring and the health risks that come along with exposure — not overexposure, just regular exposure — “that’s when people get dead silent.”

“People say, ‘I wish I knew this 20 years ago,’” Ferri says. “They feel like sitting ducks waiting for silicosis, COPD, asthma, etc. Enthusiasm for compliance will come from the field level. If an employer hasn’t put something in place, their workers will start asking questions because they’ve heard about silica from their friends at other companies. Employers need to have a program in place so they have answers to these questions.”

Restricting access to work areas

The standard requires employers to establish and limit access to regulated areas, which are areas where exposure is likely to be above the PEL.

Ferri says that she’s heard concerns about the general public being exposed as well, for example, a company might be kicking up dust in areas where there are kids outside. “People know about silica, and they recognize that if it’s harmful for workers, it’s harmful for the general public.”

While OSHA doesn’t regulate general public exposure, some jurisdictions have air quality or pollution control agencies that do. Even if your jurisdiction doesn’t have these regulations, Ferri recommends doing what you can to restrict access so as to minimize public exposure to your silica dust-generating tasks.

Clearing up misconceptions about housekeeping requirements

The housekeeping section of the standard is only one paragraph, but it’s an important one:

  • The employer shall not allow dry sweeping or dry brushing where such activity could contribute to employee exposure to respirable crystalline silica unless wet sweeping, HEPA-filtered vacuuming or other methods that minimize the likelihood of exposure are not feasible.
  • The employer shall not allow compressed air to be used to clean clothing or surfaces where such activity could contribute to employee exposure to respirable crystalline silica unless:
  • The compressed air is used in conjunction with a ventilation system that effectively captures the dust cloud created by the compressed air; or
  • No alternative method is feasible.

We asked Ferri to clarify a few of the points we’ve heard are causing some confusion among employers.

From your understanding, does “dry sweeping” refer to operator-driven, powered sweepers or manual brooms/brushes or both?

AF: “When I look at the standard, I equate dry sweeping with using a handheld broom, not a power sweeper. That said, you’d still have to look at your activities to determine what could cause respirable silica exposure. Could power sweeping cause silica exposure? The answer is yes. For specific questions about their applications, employers should contact their local OSHA office for clarification.”

In your opinion, are HEPA filters necessary to meet the PEL requirements?

AF: “HEPA filtration should be a best practice. The housekeeping section specifies HEPA-filtered vacuums. A Shop-Vac isn’t going to cut it.”

Some of the companies that contributed during the review process were concerned with HEPA filters clogging too quickly. Why does this happen and what can users do about it?

AF: “The most important thing for users to do is follow the manufacturers’ instructions for HEPA-filtered dust collectors and vacuums. Manufacturers have different time frames for filter cleaning, maintenance, etc.

This type of equipment gets abused on a worksite. Often, the HEPA filters are doing their job, but, just like with a respirator, workers don’t realize that they need to change the filter halfway through their shift, and then it becomes a maintenance concern. To keep the equipment working properly, employees need to maintain it properly.”

What are some of the most effective techniques you’ve seen for controlling dust?

AF: “Do not wait until the last minute to do cleanup! Stay ahead of it by making sure that your workers are trained to properly implement the controls and that your equipment is ready to go when you need it. For example, if you’re using wet methods to spray before sweeping, sweep right away so that the material doesn’t harden, requiring you to disturb it again, which creates more dust. If using a power sweeper, wet the area first so you don’t kick up dust when you drive through.

Also, I’ve heard from my local [Minnesota] OSHA office that using a sweeping compound is an acceptable work practice control. If you use a sweeping compound, then it won’t be considered dry sweeping.”

What do you see as the biggest challenges for industry in complying with the standard?

Ferri notes that the biggest challenge is ensuring their tools and equipment are compliant — not because it’s hard to do, but because many employers simply haven’t yet taken the necessary steps. “I’ve talked to employers about dust collectors, and they’ll say, ‘We’ve got it covered.” But then I’ll ask them directly, ‘How many tools are equipped with dust collectors?’ And the answer will be two out of 50.”

Part of the reason they still have a long way to go, Ferri says, is the difficulty of attaching dust collectors and water hoses to equipment. This is particularly an issue with tools that are used overhead. If you add a dust collector, you’re adding weight, which creates an ergonomic problem. If you add water, you create a potential slip, trip, and fall problem, not to mention water getting on your work clothes.

Other challenges arise for tasks where wet methods or HEPA vacuuming isn’t sufficient. For example, finishing concrete requires using abrasives that disturb the surface, which inevitably produces a cloud of dust. Similarly, road construction tasks like crack-sealing use compressed air to blow material out of cracks on the roadway before patching them up again. “How else are you going to do that? Compressed air gets everything. These workers aren’t going to haul around a vacuum, which wouldn’t be as effective anyway,” Ferri notes.

The answers for how best to solve some of these challenges might not be clear until enforcement begins or OSHA issues letters of interpretation. Ferri also recommends reading your safety data sheets — many of them provide information relevant to silica.

Are there any areas you think employers may be in for a surprise?

Ferri thinks employers might be surprised when they see the results of the required medical monitoring.

According to the standard, medical surveillance must be made available for all employees whose exposure exceeds the action level (25 μg/m3, averaged over an 8-hour day) for 30 or more days per year. This includes an initial baseline examination that incorporates a chest X-ray, a lung function test, and testing for latent tuberculosis infection.

The surprise, Ferri believes, will be that silica-related health problems may start much earlier than expected. “Medical monitoring is supposed to lead to early detection, which means people will understand how they’ve been exposed. Maybe their lung function isn’t as good as they thought it was or some dark spots appear on the chest X-ray. Then, we may see workers’ comp claims start popping up.”

This will, hopefully, lead employers to start providing better training about the health hazards. “Many employers still conduct training that says silicosis is a disease that will hit you in retirement. But it’s not just an old person’s disease. There’s acute silicosis and accelerated silicosis, which are described in Appendix B of the standard.”

Ferri notes that employers also need to talk about workers’ smoking habits because of the synergistic impact of cigarette smoking and silica exposure. “OSHA is saying that your work exposure plus your lifestyle can lead to you getting sicker faster,” she says. “This is something that hasn’t happened before to this extent. The standard’s preamble says that exposure levels even below the action level can be harmful. You can’t say, ‘you’ll be exposed this much and you’ll be fine.’ There’s a personalized profile that includes exposure, lifestyle, and genetic factors, and the risk is different for everybody.”

For more information about writing your exposure control plan and employee training, contact The Ferri Group. To learn how housekeeping can help you limit exposure and achieve compliance, register for the free webinar we’re hosting on May 23: Silica Dust: Practicing Proactive Housekeeping for General Industry Compliance.