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The New OSHA Silica Standard - Not Strong Enough
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The New OSHA Silica Standard - Not Strong Enough

Workers' Compensation

Silica exposure was the catalyst that brought occupational diseases to the state workers’ compensation acts in the 1950s. To shield employers from civil liability, silicosis was incorporated as a compensable condition under the capped damage system of state workers’ compensation programs. Silica exposures continue today, especially in countertop workers. The new silica exposure standard announced by OSHA has fallen short of protecting workers from this deadly occupational exposure.

Workers’ Compensation systems have awarded benefits for silica-based exposures. A sandblaster who was required to use several 100-pound bags of silica each day and who, due to the inhalation of silica dust, developed silicosis was awarded compensation benefits in the form of both disability and medical benefits. Sharp v. Paterson Monument Co., 9 N.J.Super. 476, 75 A.2d 480 (Co.1950).

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has established a revised National Emphasis Program (NEP) to identify and reduce or eliminate worker exposures to respirable crystalline silica (RCS) in general industry, maritime, and construction. 

The NEP targets specific industries expected to have the highest numbers of workers exposed to silica. It focuses on enforcement of the new silica standards, one for general industry and maritime (29 CFR § 1910.1053) and one for construction (29 CFR § 1926.1153). These standards became effective in June 2016, construction employers were required to begin complying with their standards as of September 23, 2017, and general industry and maritime employers were required to begin complying with their standards as of June 23, 2018.

Experts have remarked that the new OSHA standard needs to be stronger. Jordan Barab, former OSHA Deputy Asst Secretary 2009-2017, expressed his concerns about the new silica standard, “Finally, but, No special emphasis on manufactured countertop workers who have contracted serious cases of silicosis. Four years after the standard was issued & several years after it became effective, employers still need 90 days of compliance assistance?”

What changes were made to the NEP? 

  • Revised application to the lower permissible exposure limit for respirable crystalline silica to 50 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3) as an 8-hour time-weighted average in general industry, maritime, and construction
  • The updated list of target industries is listed in the appendix of the NEP; from this list, area offices will develop randomized establishment lists of employers in their local jurisdictions for targeted inspections; 
  • Compliance safety and health officers will refer to current enforcement guidance for RCS inspection procedures; 
  • All OSHA regional and area offices must comply with this NEP, but they are not required to develop and implement corresponding regional or local emphasis programs; and 
  • State Plans must participate because of the nationwide exposure to silica.

Respirable crystalline silica comprises small particles generated by cutting, sawing, grinding, drilling, and crushing materials such as stone, rock, concrete, brick, block, and mortar. Inhaling the dust created during these operations can cause silicosis, incurable lung disease, lung cancer, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. 

Engineered-type stone is now becoming trendy in the marketplace, and as a result, silica exposure continues as an emerging problem. OSHA needs to do better to remedy the continuing epidemic of silicosis in the workplace.


The author, Jon L. Gelman, practices law in Wayne, NJ. He is the author of NJ Workers’ Compensation Law (Thomson-Reuters) and co-author of the national treatise Modern Workers’ Compensation Law (Thomson-Reuters). For over five decades, the Law Offices of Jon L Gelman  1.973.696.7900 have represented injured workers and their families who have suffered occupational accidents and illnesses.

Recommended Citation: Gelman, Jon L.,  The New OSHA Silica Standard - Not Strong Enough (2016-2022),

© 2001-2023 Jon L Gelman. All rights reserved.

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