Current Trends in Safety & OSHA

Modified: 23rd Sep 2019
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 Current Trends in Safety & OSHA


What is Silica? Silica is found in soil, sand, granite, concrete, rock, and numerous other materials. Silica dust is created by grinding, chipping, drilling, and cutting these materials. This creates airborne silica dust that can easily be breathed in (Bass 2017). Silica has only been a staple hazard since the 1900’s when it comes to Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA).

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Throughout the evolving history of OSHA, in the beginning silica could be considered an underlying issue for hundreds of years. Today silica is a known respirable carcinogen. Even in the technologically advanced world we live in today there are numbers in the millions when it comes to the number of workers at the risk of silica exposure every single year (Bass, 2017). Certain jobs and tasks that are putting people at high risk exposure to silica still today include: foundry work, stone cutting, rock drilling, tunneling, quarry work, milling, polishing, ready-mix concrete, oil and gas operations and abrasive blasting. With exposure numbers still being that large it is crucial that employers take as many steps as they can to protect their workers.

OSHA strives to comes out with more stringent exposure limits and recently came out with one for silica. With a new permissible exposure limit (PEL) of 50 micrograms of respirable silica per cubic meter, over an eight-hour time, this is half of the previous PEL for general industry (Bass, 2017). This new PEL is 20% less than the previous PEL for construction as well as shipyards/maritime. OSHA is a big player when it comes to protecting workers exposed to silica.

The proceeding sections in this paper will provide greater detail and information on silica. Exposure to silica such as who is exposed will also be discussed as well as how to reduce the exposure. OSHA will also be explained and how it has evolved since it has begun. At the conclusion of this paper there should be a clear and concise understanding of silica and the harmful effects it has on humans.

History of OSHA

 The American public has always put a high value on having safe workplaces as part of the nation’s dynamic economy. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is known throughout the country as the main resource for occupational safety and health issues, but the OSHA that exists today is the product of a long evolution from a 19th century economy in which occupational safety and health was not the priority it is today. The first safety and health legislation that was passed happened in 1877, when Massachusetts required guarding of belts, shafts, and gears, protection on elevators, and adequate fire exits in factories. Across the country more legislation began to pass helping to protect workers, but it was not enough.

In response to these dangerous working conditions across the nation and as a culmination of decades of reform, the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 was signed into law by President Richard M. Nixon, and was officially established on April 28, 1971. This law also led to the establishment of the following programs: the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.

Since then, OSHA and our state partners, coupled with the efforts of employers, safety and health professionals, unions and advocates, have had a dramatic effect on workplace safety. Fatality and injury rates have dropped markedly. Although accurate statistics were not kept at the time, it is estimated that in 1970 around 14,000 workers were killed on the job. That number fell to approximately 4,340 in 2009. At the same time, U.S. employment has almost doubled and now includes over 130 million workers at more than 7.2 million worksites. Since the passage of the OSHA Act, the rate of reported serious workplace injuries and illnesses has declined from 11 per 100 workers in 1972 to 3.6 per 100 workers in 2009. OSHA’s safety and health standards, including those for trenching, machine guarding, asbestos, benzene, lead, and bloodborne pathogens have prevented countless work-related injuries, illnesses and deaths.

OSHA determines a point of emphasis that they wish to focus on at a national level and local level to help protect worker safety. They determine area that need extra attention for all areas or where areas are having more severe incidents. Starting with trenching and excavation n 1985, OSHA has done close to 100 total emphasis programs having Silica be the most recent one.

History of Silica

Crystalline silica is a major hazard in the workplace and affects many employees in the United States, as well as worldwide. There are two different forms of respirable silica: quartz and crystalline. “It is the most toxic form of silica, and estimates suggest that approximately 1.7 million workers are exposed to respirable crystalline silica in the U.S.” (Gorrell, 2011). Silica exposure leads to a multitude of potential health problems, which include: silicosis, lung disease renal disease, multiple forms of cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and tuberculosis. Lung disease from dusty work environments has been recognized since the 16th century and was found prevalent in many mining and industry settings at this time. Respirable silica is found in many more industries today, it is commonly found in mining, construction, demolition, manufacturing, and stone workers. Even though there has been evidence of the effects of silica, silicosis was not a recognized disease until the early 1900’s.

In 1920, epidemiology studies were starting to be conducted in the United States. The focus of these studies were primarily in the mining and foundry industries. Results of these studies varied greatly dependent upon location and industry of the site. Non-metal mining areas were found to have a higher amount of respirable silica in the area in which workers were mining. The most important study was conducted in the New England are at a granite mining site, the findings at these sites were later used to create the occupational exposure limits (OEL) for silica. “The granite studies confirmed that dose, duration and percent silica content of the inhaled dust were significant risk factors associated with the incidence of lung disease” (Gorrell, 2011). The OSH Act was passed in 1970, and silica was marked as one of the five key industrial exposure hazards. At this time epidemiological studies started to measure disease rates related to silica.

 More recently in the year 2002, OSHA started to develop a standard based on silica, 14 years later, 29 CFR 1926.1153 was implemented. This standard states that employers must take actions to protect their workers from respirable crystalline silica exposure in the workplace. This standard requires many actions to be taken to help protect workers, including medical exams for long term, chronic exposures. Also, areas of high exposure are to be restricted to lower the amount of silica a worker may face. Lastly, housekeeping practices such as dry sweeping in areas where poor or no ventilation are present is restricted.

Who is exposed to silica?

Where are general industry employees exposed to crystalline silica dust? Workers in many different industries are exposed to silica.` In fact millions of workers are exposed every day to silica dust.

General Contracting workers are exposed to silica from a number of exposures. From mixing cement, to general dust being kicked up workers are exposed frequently on a regular basis. There are about 2,900,000 construction workers in the industry which are exposed to hazardous silica. Construction often times requires the demolition of buildings which creates large amounts of silica dust.

Heavy Construction includes highways, bridges, dams, and railroads. These projects often are millions of dollars, and can span massive amounts of ground. There are about 472,000 workers in the US heavy construction industry. The majority of these workers are exposed to harmful silica dust. These large expensive projects often require blasting, cutting, and breaking through solid rock. Doing so creates silica dust.

Mining is done unground, in open pits, and rock quarries. Because silica is one of the most significant components of the earth’s crust. All the digging, crushing, blasting being conducted results in the creation of hazardous silica dust.

Manufacturing workers are not exempt from silica exposure. Cutting of countertops, tiles and other similar material can result in silica exposure. Additionally any modifications to the factory which require use of concrete or the sawing/drilling of concrete will result in a silica exposure.

Auto-repair and other industries which require sand blasting will inherently carry the potential for silica exposure.

According to NIOSH the number of deaths from silicosis has declined in the past year however it still kills about 100 people a year. Because the disease can take years of exposure and then years in to take a person’s life. Current OSHA regulations prevent workers from being exposed to hazardous levels of silica. However OSHA was not established until the early 1970s. The the regulations established to protect workers from silica did not come around until years later.

The effects of silica exposure are still left to this day. The older generations are feeling it significantly more than the younger generations of manual laborers working under the protective OSHA.

How to Reduce Silica Exposure

Reducing the exposure to silica is essential to the health and well-being of employees. Silica can be extremely dangerous and detrimental to a person’s health and without the proper precautions, silica may run rampant throughout the workplace. The first step in reducing silica exposure is planning. It is required by OSHA to have a written exposure control plan containing the following elements: “A description of the tasks in the workplace that involve exposure to respirable crystalline silica; (ii) A description of the engineering controls, work practices, and respiratory protection used to limit employee exposure to respirable crystalline silica for each task; (iii) A description of the housekeeping measures used to limit employee exposure to respirable crystalline silica; and (iv) A description of the procedures used to restrict access to work areas, when necessary, to minimize the number of employees exposed to respirable crystalline silica and their level of exposure, including exposures generated by other employers or sole proprietors”. The written exposure control plan must be reviewed annually to further evaluate the effectiveness of the plan. If the plan becomes unsatisfactory due to organizational changes or updated standards, the proper changes should be made in order to comply with OSHA.

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  An organization may also reduce silica in the workplace by generating awareness through training. This allows the working employees to understand how to look for and identify silica while doing their daily tasks. It is essential to the company that supervisors and upper management are not the only people that know how to identify silica because the workers are the ones being exposed. Continually, the workers are able to acknowledge the presence of silica much faster. Once the presence of silica is determined, an employer has the responsibility to control the hazard. They can do this through a multitude of methods such as replacing crystalline silica materials with substitutes. One of these substitutes could be using aluminum oxide instead of sand for abrasive blasting. Another method would be providing engineering or administrative controls whenever it is feasible for the company. An example of this would be installing local exhaust ventilation and blasting cabinets. Both examples would aid in mitigating the hazard. This could prove to be sufficient enough in reducing the exposure below the permissible exposure limit (PEL) that OSHA has in place. OSHA has been developing regulations in an effort to amend current standards for occupational exposure to silica. They are establishing a new PEL and other provisions to control excessive exposures. Water sprays are another component to reducing silica in the workplace. Water sprays reduce the dust that permeates through the air. This dust control method works best when the spray is directed at the point of cutting or grinding. Subsequent to the water suppressing the dust, vacuums may be utilized to capture it at the source.


Silica is extremely toxic and will always be around. It is inevitable that people will come in contact with it at least one in their lifetime, whether it be on a worksite or just walking through a construction zone. Continuous evaluations will occur, allowing for more documentation and trend analysis hopefully resulting in the PEL becoming more stringent within the applicable areas. Companies will continue to play a crucial role in protecting their workers from respirable silica exposure. Respirable silica exposure will never be 100% eliminated, however, I think it is possible to decrease the risk exposure number as well as the high-risk exposure number. Change will be able to occur successfully when there is an understanding across the board of silica and its potentially fatal effects.




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