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On February 4, 2020 OSHA announced it will be launching a national emphasis program (NEP) aimed at reducing occupational exposures to respirable crystalline silica (RCS), and promoting compliance with its Respirable Crystalline Silica Standards for general industry, maritime and construction industries.


A 2015 report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) estimated that approximately 2 million U.S. workers are exposed to respirable crystalline silica (RCS) on the job each year. RCS exposure has long-term and potentially life-threatening health effects including silicosis, tuberculosis, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), kidney disease, autoimmune disorders, cardiovascular impairment and even death.

OSHA has enforced standards on workplace RCS exposure since 1971, but for decades, stakeholders had pushed for stronger permissible exposure limits (PELs) to further protect workers. In 2016, OSHA issued two new standards for RCS – one for general industry and maritime (29 CFR § 1910.1053) and one for construction (29 CFR § 1926.1153).

The 2016 standards established a new exposure action level of 25 µg/m3 and reduced the PEL from 100 to 50 µg/m3 (both calculated as 8-hour TWAs). The standards also include requirements for installing exposure controls, implementing medical surveillance programs to monitor workers’ health and exposure to RCS, and maintaining a written exposure control plan.

Compliance Deadlines

With separate standards for general industry, maritime and construction industries, the confusion around the requirements and compliance deadlines among employers is understandable. Fortunately, OSHA’s Enforcement Directive CPL 03-00-023 clarifies the Agency’s expectations for compliance. As of the February 4, 2020 effective date, OSHA requires that:

  • Construction employers must meet all requirements of the construction standard
  • General industry and maritime employers shall comply with all requirements of the general industry and maritime standard, except as outlined below:
    • The requirement to make medical surveillance available to each employee who is exposed at or above the action level for 30 or more days per year does not begin until June 23, 2020 (until then, medical surveillance shall be made available to employees exposed above the PEL for 30 or more days per year)
    • For hydraulic fracturing operations in the oil and gas industry, the obligations for engineering controls in paragraph (f)(1) of the general industry standard commence on June 23, 2021.


The RCS Standard came into force on October 27, 2017 and in just the first six months of enforcement, OSHA cited 117 separate violations including:

  • 35 citations for failure to conduct an exposure assessment of worker exposure to respirable crystalline silica;
  • 31 citations for failing to adhere to the Table 1 list of equipment/tasks and OSHA’s required engineering and work control methods and respiratory protection;
  • 20 citations for lack of a written exposure control plan.

Based on these numbers alone, you wouldn’t necessarily think that compliance with the RCS standard is any better or any worse than other OSHA standards. However, other studies lend support to the conclusion that unsafe RCS exposures are especially common in U.S. workplaces:

  • OSHA studies conducted in 2003 and 2009 discovered that as much as 42% of all silica samples collected during Agency inspections exceeded the PEL.
  • An April 2019 analysis conducted by OSHA reviewed all of the chemical air samples collected by the Agency between 2008 and 2017 (including 13,324 air samples for silica) and found that 14.1% of samples for silica exceeded the PEL.
  • During the first year of enforcement of OSHA’s 2016 RCS Standard, Agency air sampling data showed that 17.6% of silica samples exceeded the new PEL. For comparison, only 2.9% of all chemical samples collected for substance-specific standards exceeded the applicable PEL.

OSHA has conducted separate silica NEPs as recently as 2008, but in response to these recent violations and sampling results, OSHA is once again implementing a NEP to target industries and workplaces with the highest risk for worker exposure to RCS. For a complete list of industries covered by the RCS NEP, see OSHA Enforcement Directive CPL 03-00-023 Appendix A: Targeted Industries for the RCS NEP in General Industry, Maritime & Construction 2017 NAICS Codes

So, What Now?

The RCS NEP will include a combination of targeted inspections of establishments in listed industries, as well as outreach and compliance assistance programs for covered employers. OSHA anticipates that the majority of the inspections will occur in construction because most exposures to RCS occur on construction worksites.

Under the NEP, OSHA’s Enforcement Directive CPL 03-00-023 specifies that at least 2% of scheduled inspections will be specifically targeted at RCS standard compliance. Establishments in NEP-listed industries will be randomly selected for inspections, but employers should be aware that complaints and referrals alleging potential worker exposures to RCS will be prioritized for OSHA inspection.

VelocityEHS Can Help!

If you’re in one of the NEP-listed industries, you should be prepared for a visit from an OSHA inspector. To help workers and employers alike, VelocityEHS offers a variety of free compliance and best practice resources to help you understand your requirements and better protect your workers from RCS hazards. Click on the links below to learn more!

If you’re looking for tools to help simplify compliance with OSHA’s RCS Standard, VelocityEHS’ Chemical Management Solutions can help you improve awareness of silica-containing substances in your workplace so you can quickly identify RCS hazards and get ahead of exposure assessment requirements.

From there, our Industrial Hygiene solution makes it easy to monitor workplace exposures to RCS, coordinate respirator fit testing (RFT), manage similar exposure groups (SEGs) and medical surveillance programs, and centralize every aspect of your IH program

But RCS compliance is just one of the ways VelocityEHS can help your business. We offer a comprehensive suite of award-winning EHS management software products and services that make it easy to build a safer, more sustainable workplace. Request a Demo today or give us a call at 1.866.919.7922 to learn how we can help you!