Some individuals work in industries where they might be exposed to a hazardous environment on a daily or sporadic basis. Silica, a chemical naturally found in sand, quartz, and several other materials, is often found in construction materials. Silica can also be found in some electronics and food-related industries. It's generally in a fine, powder-like form.
Some forms of silica are virtually non-toxic if ingested orally, according to the Carolinas Poison Center. However, when inhaled--particularly over long periods of time--silica can contribute to incurable diseases and illnesses. Lung cancer, chronic respiratory infections, COPDs (chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases), and of course, silicosis. The latter is an incurable lung disease that limits one's ability to breathe, makes the individual more susceptible to other diseases, and can cause fever, cough, blue skin (for lack of breathing), and other ailments.
Employers have certain legal obligations to educate workers on appropriate handling and response in work environments that might involve exposure to silica. Employers must also limit the number of silica workers are exposed to on a work shift basis and provide proper equipment.
In early 2016, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration approved a rule change that sets forth new standards that will hopefully make workplaces safer for employees. The rule minimizes silica exposure limits that employers are legally allowed to expose workers to on a work shift basis.
What are compliance dates for employers based by industry?
- June 23, 2018 - Employers in maritime and non-construction and non-hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") industries
- June 23, 2018 - Employers in fracking industries. (Engineer Controls is exempt from this date and has until June 23, 2021 to comply.)
- June 23, 2017 - Employers in the construction industry.
After these respective dates, employers must provide medical exams for workers exposed to silica, reduce silica exposure to 50 micrograms per cubic meter for every 8-hour shift, create an exposure plan, make certain efforts to control silica levels, among other standards.
North Carolina has a large construction industry, and our state also has many operating quarries, but there is another tremendous industry in our state that most folks don't reflexively associate with silica exposure: Agriculture. A 2002 study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information analyzed North Carolina farmworker exposure to silica. The study found, "The highest respirable silica concentrations were measured during sweet potato transplanting." Being that North Carolina is the country's largest producer of sweet potatoes, one can imagine many farmworkers could be affected.