Created by the crushing, sawing, sanding, cutting, drilling, and grinding of stone, concrete, brick and mortar, small silica dust particles create a significant hazard for worker in a variety of industries. Crystalline silica particles with a diameter less than 10 μm are considered respirable, posing the most potential danger to employees. The extended inhalation of respirable silica particles can lead to these particles becoming embedded in lung tissue, significantly increasing the risk that workers develop silicosis, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and/or renal disease. With recent studies showing the harm of even low-level silica exposure, both the National Institutes of Health’s National Toxicology Program and the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer have classified crystalline silica as a known human carcinogen.
In recognition of these well-documented hazards, both OSHA and the European Union have recently announced new standard exposure limits, intended to provide better protection for workers. Previous exposure limits failed to reflect newly found correlations between low-level silica exposure and worker health and were inconsistent between industries and countries within the EU.
OSHA published a final rule on respirable silica on March 25th, 2016, establishing two new standards: 29 CFR 1910.1053 and 29 CFR 1926.1153. Both standards establish a new 8-hour, weighted average exposure limit of 50 micrograms per cubic meter (μg/m³), and an action level of 25 μg/m³ for construction, general industry, and maritime workplaces. Compliance timelines vary by industry and should be verified to ensure worker safety and compliant working conditions. Workplace silica exposure is most commonly tested using either the OSHA 142 or NIOSH 7500 method. OSHA has verified that both testing methods are accurate and sensitive enough to measure samples for the new exposure limits.
EU-OSHA directive 2004/37/EC regarding worker exposure to carcinogens and mutagens in the workplace was recently amended on December 12th, 2017. This amendment lowered the binding limit value of respirable crystalline silica to an 8-hour, weighted average exposure limit of 0.1 mg/m3 (2004/37/EC, Annex III). The Directive enters into force as of January 16th, 2018 and the deadline for transposition into law by all EU member states is January 17th, 2020. While no testing methods are specified in this directive, both the OSHA 142 or NIOSH 7500 method can be used to test for compliance in the workplace.
Several methods can be used to determine the concentration of free crystalline silica within the workplace.