Flash Report: Cal/OSHA Adopts Emergency Silica Rules

The Cal/OSHA Standards Board has unanimously adopted revisions to the Title 8 silica standard that are intended to protect workers in the engineered stone industry. If approved as expected by the Office of Administrative Law, the emergency temporary standard becomes effective on December 29th and will remain in effect for one year. Cal/OSHA intends to make the changes permanent by the time the ETS ends.

The existing standard, General Industry Safety Orders §5204, “is not adequate to address the hazards of engineered stone,” according to Eric Berg, deputy chief for health at the Division of Occupational Safety and Health, and Senior Safety Engineer Michael Wilson.

The move comes as silicosis cases continue to come to light from fabrication of the increasingly popular engineered stone for countertops. To date, 95 California employees in this industry have developed silicosis, four have received lung transplants (with five under evaluation) and 10 have died. Many more cases of this incurable disease are expected, says occupational physician and former Standards Board member Dr. Robert Blink. The state features about 1,000 fabrication shops. In coming years, DOSH projects there could be 1,000 silicosis cases, Berg and Wilson say.

Adds Dr. Wendy Thanassi, another occupational physician representing the Western Occupational and Environmental Medical Association, which petitioned for the ETS, “We are your medical professionals. We are telling you this storm is coming.”

Just this week, Australia outlawed the sale and importation of engineered stone. While there is no move toward a similar prohibition in California, some stakeholders have suggested that the state impose licensing and certification requirements in addition to the Cal/OSHA rules.

The new protections in the ETS trigger when employees perform “high-exposure trigger tasks,” including any dust-creating work with artificial stone containing 0.1% crystalline silica by with, or natural stone with 10% content. Specific requirements include:

  • Exposure monitoring at least every 12 months to assess the effectiveness of controls;
  • All high-exposure trigger tasks to be conducted in a clearly designated area with warning signs;
  • Wet methods to be used “without exception”;
  • Dust-containing waste materials must be properly handled, and dry sweeping and compressed air are prohibited;
  • Powered air-purifying respirators or equally protective alternatives required;
  • Communication and training on the hazards of silica and the control measures; and
  • DOSH required to issue an Order Prohibiting Use “when dry operations are observed.”

But some members of the stone-cutting industry said the ETS goes too far. “We are concerned about the proposed ETS’s disregard for the current permissible exposure limit and action level standards, which overlook the substantial efforts already undertaken by compliant companies,” said Jim Hieb, CEO of the Natural Stone Institute.

Industry members urged the Board to postpone a vote on the ETS and address their concerns and “additional financial burdens” on compliant employers. But Board members concluded the situation on the ground does not support a delay.