Silica Risks in North Carolina Workplaces OSHA’s Latest Focus

Sometimes, the most dangerous elements on a job site aren’t those several-ton beams that might crash down from above, the exposed wiring that could result in a serious burn or the vehicle could come barreling your direction at a high speed.
Rather, the worst North Carolina workplace injuries might come in the form of a slight breeze, setting adrift seemingly weightless particles of dust into the air around you. When those particles of dust include toxic asbestos or silica fibers, workers are placed at high risk for chronic or even terminal lung diseases, especially when they aren’t provided the proper respiratory protection.

Despite the extreme dangers that result from contact with these airborne fibers, neither remains illegal for use in products in the U.S. However, while the use of asbestos has been highly regulated since a scourge of tort cases have flooded the court system in recent years, silica hasn’t received as much attention. In fact, rules pertaining to the handling of crystalline silica were last updated in 1971.

A lot has changed since then. Now, the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration has proposed a new set of permanent rules for how companies should be actively working to shield employees from the inherent risks of contact with this substance. At this point, the rules aren’t final. While based upon an extensive review of the scientific evidence, current industry consensus standards and OSHA’s various outreach efforts, the agency’s protocol is to allow for acceptance of public comment before making it official.

The current permissible silica exposure limits, adopted in the early 1970s, are reportedly based on research from the 1960s, when we didn’t fully understand the dramatic implications of such exposure. Since those standards were adopted, numerous agencies have all come out to formally recognize crystalline silica as a human carcinogen.

Most forms of silica are forms of highly-purified quartz. It’s used to make glass, fiberglass, ceramics, paints and other types of casting.

We now know that inhaling these particles can cause silicosis, which is a disabling, non-reversible and sometimes fatal lung disease. Exposure to this substance has also been known to cause lung cancer. Other respiratory diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (which includes emphysema and bronchitis) as well as immune disorders and kidney disease have been associated with airborne exposure to crystalline silica.

OSHA estimates that by updating worker protection rules, it’s possible that we may be able to prevent thousands of deaths each year. It’s estimated that roughly 2.2 million workers in the U.S. are exposed to crystalline silica while on the job. Most of those are in the construction industry, with those who crush, grind, cut or drill silica-containing materials, such as tile, masonry, rock and concrete, the most at-risk. Foundry workers, those in hydraulic fracturing and those in sand-blasting and maritime industries are also at high risk.

According to the new rules, workers would be limited to 50 micrograms of silica per cubic meter of air in an 8-hour day. This standard would be the same in all industries, and employers would be required to provide effective respiratory equipment and worker training to help reduce the risk. Additionally, those who may be at risk for high silica exposure should be entitled to regular medical exams.

There are widespread industry practices that currently cut down on the incidence of exposure, such as significantly wetting the material before working with it. However, such practices aren’t mandated by law. The new rules would change that.

If you have been injured at work, contact the Lee Law Offices at 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
OSHA’s Proposed Crystalline Silica Rule: Overview, Sept. 2013, Fact Sheet, U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Adminis tion

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