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Update! Respirable Silica Compliance

Hi everyone. I know you are all out there staying healthy, wealthy, and wise by following your local, county, regional, state, and federal guidelines to protect you, your employees, and your customers by preventing that pesky COVID-19 virus from finding its way into your lungs. This made me think this would be a great time to update you on the current state of compliance with OSHA’s Respirable Airborne Silica regulation. Just like COVID, you don’t want those tiny silica particles to build up in your lungs.

Here it is: There is no change.

That’s right. No change – yet. As I’m sure you know, the gears of government sometimes grind slowly, which seems to be happening with this regulation. In my experience, this usually means that those in charge of a program are taking a long, careful look before making changes to regulation while people are getting familiar with it.

cPaul Regina, TCNA’s Government Affairs Senior Specialist
Paul Regina, TCNA’s Government Affairs Senior Specialist

I recently checked in with TCNA’s Government Affairs Senior Specialist Paul Regina. Here is what Paul had to say about the state of the regulation:

There has been very little happening on the silica front.

In August of 2019, OSHA issued a Request for Information (RFI) regarding revisions to construction Table 1. The OSHA website says they are currently analyzing the data received during the RFI.

The current Unified Regulatory Agenda, an outline of when agencies believe they will be issuing regulations, indicates there is a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking dated June of 2020. Please see the following links for further information:

OSHA Silica Page: https://www.osha.gov/dsg/topics/silicacrystalline/

Silica in the Regulatory Unified Agenda: https://www.reginfo.gov/public/do/eAgendaViewRule?pubId=201910&RIN=1218-AD18”

As Paul noted, the primary item being looked at is Table 1. This is where the regulation lists the tasks that can produce varying amounts of respirable airborne silica. Table 1 is too long to include with this article, but you can review it for yourself here: https://www.osha.gov/laws-regs/regulations/standardnumber/1926/1926.1153

Let’s take a simple look at Table 1. It has these three columns: 

  1. Equipment/Task
  2. Engineering and work practice control methods
  3. Required protection and Assigned Protection Factor (APF)
  • An Equipment/Task is something you do or a tool you use to perform a task in the process of installing tile. A common example is a wet saw used for the task of cutting tile.
  • An Engineering and work practice control method is the description of how the tool is used to perform the task in a manner that keeps the silica dust at a certain level.
  • The Required respiratory protection and APF column is broken into two parts. Fewer than or equal to four hours per shift, and greater than four hours per shift. Each column will list an APF number ranging from 0 (none) to 25. You add up the APF numbers for all the tasks you do in a shift to come up with a total APF.

Here is one example of how the table works: 

Apprentice installer using engineering controls to perform the task of cutting tile with a saw that has a built-in water delivery system to control or eliminate respirable airborne silica. No mask required.

For the Task of cutting tile, if you use an Engineering and work practice control method of using a saw that came with a built-in water supply system designed to constantly keep the blade wet while cutting (a wet saw), you can run that saw and cut tile with it for the whole shift without wearing a well-fitted, approved face mask designed to keep the tiny silica particles from entering your lungs. See if you can tell how I put this example together when you view Table 1 yourself. 

There is so much information on the OSHA website about this. You really should check it out. The FAQ section is really good. It lists the questions that you and I both have and provides us with answers that aren’t loaded up with too much of that wonky government regulation language. You don’t have to be a safety engineer to figure this stuff out. OSHA is trying to help us all understand.

If you read nothing else, read this direct quote from the OSHA website. Even if you’ve read this before, it’s worth reading again. I know it gets my attention when I am not thinking about this every day.

Crystalline silica is a common mineral found in the earth’s crust. Materials like sand, stone, concrete, and mortar contain crystalline silica. It is also used to make products such as glass, pottery, ceramics, bricks, and artificial stone.

Respirable crystalline silica – very small particles at least 100 times smaller than ordinary sand you might find on beaches and playgrounds – is created when cutting, sawing, grinding, drilling, and crushing stone, rock, concrete, brick, block, and mortar. Activities such as abrasive blasting with sand; sawing brick or concrete; sanding or drilling into concrete walls; grinding mortar; manufacturing brick, concrete blocks, stone countertops, or ceramic products; and cutting or crushing stone result in worker exposures to respirable crystalline silica dust. Industrial sand used in certain operations, such as foundry work and hydraulic fracturing (fracking), is also a source of respirable crystalline silica exposure. About 2.3 million people in the U.S. are exposed to silica at work.

Workers who inhale these very small crystalline silica particles are at increased risk of developing serious silica-related diseases, including:

A tile contractor and installer really should think about respirable airborne silica during every work task they do every workday on every worksite. I’ll guess that you don’t have to think too hard to come up with the tasks that create the single largest amount of respirable silica. That’s right – dry cutting tile or grinding tile or mortar with a grinder that does not have a shroud and dust collection system that includes a 99% efficient vacuum and filter or fixed water supply system.

Many talented installers are doing amazing scribe-type tile work these days. Be sure you are using a saw or grinder with the right water supply-type or shroud and dust collection-type system to avoid breathing in respirable silica. (Photo courtesy of Stoneman Construction LLC)

I see a lot of very talented installers doing amazing scribe-type tile work these days. If you aren’t using a saw or grinder with the right water supply-type or shroud and dust collection-type system, then please think about the task you are performing. Think about what you are breathing in. It’s not COVID-19, but once those tiny silica particles get in your lungs they are never coming out. They are going to keep building up and will eventually make you sick and can even be the cause of what ends up killing you.

If you haven’t yet become familiar with OSHA’s Occupational Exposure to Respirable Crystalline Silica regulation 29 C.F.R. § 1926.1153, here is what you need to do for you and your company:

  1. Check out NTCA’s website and read up on the information and follow the links we have provided to the professional tile community. https://www.tile-assn.com/page/PositionStatLibrary, towards the bottom of the page. 
  2. Download our standard compliance plan.
  3. Create your plan.

After you do that, the rest will follow and will become part of your daily safety habits and work practices.

During an informational session at Total Solutions Plus last year, I had the opportunity to ask an OSHA staff member involved with putting the regulation in place if there is a distinction between commercial or residential contractors and whether they were inspecting residential contractors for compliance. He replied that all contractors and jobsites are subject to inspection. He continued that if they happen to see a residential jobsite under work, they may check to see how things are going. 

At any worksite, the first thing they will ask is to speak to the Competent Person and to see your company’s Respirable Silica Control Plan. What is a Competent Person? A Competent Person is an individual in your company who knows all about respirable crystalline silica and your control plan. This is the person who identifies respirable crystalline silica hazards on your jobsites and who has the authorization to correct them right away.

Want to know why this is important? They figure if you have taken the time to prepare a plan and assign a Competent Person, then you have probably looked at your tasks, work practices, and engineering controls, and calculated your APF and many of the things necessary to comply with the regulation designed to protect you, your employees, other trades, your client, and anyone else who enters your jobsite.

Respirable silica exposure control information available on the NTCA website.

Not only is it the law, but it’s also important stuff for your health and wealth. Be wise, take the time today to review your plan or make a plan. And enter “OSHA” at tileletter.com to keep up to date with the latest announcements issued by OSHA throughout the year.

Thanks for reading. Remember to join NTCA’s training team at a virtual live Program in a region or time zone near you soon. Go to www.tile-assn.com and click on the Education and Certification section to see all of the training programs available to you. I hope you take advantage of these terrific benefits today!

Mark Heinlein

Mark Heinlein is Training Director for the National Tile Contractors Association. He is Certified Tile Installer #1112 and currently a Ceramic Tile Education Foundation evaluator for the Certified Tile Installer program. Heinlein was the owner of Mark Heinlein Surfaces of Negaunee, Michigan.