Some construction industry-related groups are asking the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to withdraw its proposed rule to drastically lower the permissible exposure limit (PEL) of crystalline silica for the construction industry. Input for the last comment period was due February 11, 2014.

“OSHA’s current permissible exposure limits (PELs) for crystalline silica were adopted in 1971 and have not been updated since that time. They do not adequately protect workers; they are outdated, inconsistent and hard to understand,” according to a fact sheet on the OSHA website.

OSHA also says that strong evidence shows that current PELs do not adequately protect worker health. The current PELs are based on research from the 1960s and earlier and do not reflect more recent scientific evidence.

“The current PELs for construction and shipyard workers allow them to be exposed to risks that are over twice as high as for workers in general industry. The proposed rule would provide consistent levels of protection for workers in all sectors covered by the rule,” says OSHA.

According to the proposed rule, workers’ exposures would be limited to a new PEL of 50 micrograms of respirable crystalline silica per cubic meter of air (μg/m3), averaged over an 8-hour day. The new PEL would be the same in all industries covered by the rule.

The proposed rule is estimated to provide average net benefits of about $2.8 to $4.7 billion annually over the next 60 years. It is expected to result in annual costs of about $1,242 for the average workplace covered by the rule, says OSHA. The annual cost to a firm with fewer than 20 employees would be less, averaging about $550.

Some industry associations have spoken out about the rule this week while others are monitoring its progress.

“We are evaluating any potential impacts on the industry and continue to monitor developments,” says Mike O’Brien, president of the Window and Door Manufacturers Association.

“Federal regulatory agencies must begin to conduct a much higher level of due-diligence before proposing rules that cause financial burdens to the still recovering
construction industry and the manufacturers who supply products for commercial and residential building,” says Rich Walker, AAMA president and CEO. “As found through the EPA’s own Inspector General, the Lead: Renovation Repair and Painting Rule (LRRP) was developed and finalized based on a handful of incorrect information. The LRRP rule has now cost industry close to a billion dollars since its inception and little to no impact in lead exposure rates have been witnessed. OSHA must be monitored to ensure that the same mistakes in rule development and administration are not repeated.”

The Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) and the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) requested this week that OSHA withdraw the rule.

“OSHA’s crystalline silica proposal is potentially the most egregious regulatory initiative that OSHA has proposed for the construction industry,” says ABC vice president of Government Affairs Geoff Burr. “In addition to failing to demonstrate a need for the rule, OSHA has severely underestimated the compliance impact. The proposal likely will impact 1.5 million more construction workers than OSHA estimated and will cost at least four times as much to implement.”

The NAHB says the rule would require impractical medical surveillance of construction industry workers, extensive and costly record-keeping processes and restrictions on certain construction site work practices, which contradict existing safety procedures.

“The real problem here is that OSHA doesn’t understand how this rule would work on real world residential construction sites,” says NAHB chairman Kevin Kelly, a homebuilder from Wilmington, Del. “Before this rule moves forward, OSHA needs to work with us and our members to craft something that is pragmatic, workable and actually improves construction industry workers’ health and well-being.”

NAHB is recommending that OSHA use the existing PEL for silica in construction until a comprehensive study demonstrates that the PEL must be made lower for legitimate health reasons. NAHB has also advised OSHA to focus mandated control methods on silica-generating tasks—within the construction industry—that have been proven by silica exposure monitoring data to generate high levels of silica exposure above the existing PEL.

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