Federal OSHA Standards for Dust and Debris in the Workplace

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The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is a federal agency created by the U.S. Department of Labor to protect workers from various hazards, including dust and debris. Through OSHA, employers must comply with federal and state laws to set personal protective equipment (PPE) and dust collection guidelines. OSHA has specific regulations for some types of dust, like silica dust, while it covers other dust hazards under its General Duty Clause.

OSHA Regulations for Hazards

Some hazards, like explosive or combustible dust, are covered under OSHA's General Duty Clause. This applies when there is no specific standard for a particular hazard. To prove that a company has violated the OSHA General Duty Clause, one must show that the business knew of a hazard in their workplace and did nothing to prevent or stop it. These conditions must apply:

  • Employer did not keep the business free of the hazard and exposed workers to it.
  • Hazard is recognizable.
  • Hazard is likely to cause severe injury or death.
  • Feasible methods existed with which to correct the hazard, but the employer did not utilize them.

To issue a violation of the General Duty Clause, OSHA must prove through industry, employer or "common-sense" recognition that there is a hazard. This recognition must be in the employer's industry – it is generally insufficient otherwise. OSHA can also prove recognition if the employer knew of the hazard and evidence of this exists. If there is no evidence, OSHA can still establish recognition if a reasonable person shows recognition of danger. At that point, OSHA will identify a feasible, available and likely action to correct the hazard.

OSHA cannot issue a General Duty Clause violation unless it has knowledge of a method that will stop or substantially reduce the danger. A business does not have to follow OSHA's corrective action recommendations if it develops or discovers a different action that will either reduce or stop the hazard risks in the same or greater capacity.

Explosive Dust Control in the Workplace

Combustible materials can burn quickly when finely divided. When airborne, under the right concentration and conditions, this particulate dust can explode. This can even occur with materials that don't burn in larger pieces, such as metals. Food items such as sugar, spices, flour, feed, starch and grains, plastics, tobacco, paper, wood, dyes, pharmaceuticals and pesticides can also explode in dust form. This type of explosion can result in grave injury, death and the destruction of property.

OSHA has no standards in place for combustible dust hazards; it is under the agency's National Emphasis Program (NEP), which emphasizes hazards across the U.S. Under an NEP, businesses in certain industries can expect more inspections, but OSHA cannot cite a company for a specific combustible dust standard violation. Inspectors focus on potential combustibles, and even if OSHA cannot fine a company for combustible dust, it can use other standards to enforce safety in the workplace.

Silica Dust and OSHA Standards

Crystalline silica is natural and found in materials such as sand, stone, concrete and mortar, which make up objects such as pottery ceramics, bricks and glass. Cutting, drilling, sawing or blasting these objects can create respirable crystalline silica – dust particles that are smaller than a grain of sand. Over time, these particles can cause life-threatening diseases, including:

  • Silicosis: an often fatal lung disease.
  • Lung cancer.
  • Kidney disease.
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Currently, OSHA has respirable crystalline silica standards for two industries, construction and general industry and maritime. Businesses following alternative exposure control methods must:

  • Determine respirable crystalline silica exposure in workers.
  • Limit workers' exposure to a Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL) of 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air (50 μg/m3) within an eight-hour, time-weighted average (TWA).
  • Utilize feasible work practice controls and engineering to limit worker exposure to the PEL through control methods like dust collection systems and supplement with PPE when necessary.
  • Keep records of respirable crystalline silica exposure in workers.

Respiratory Protection from Dust Exposure

Depending on the workplace and industry, employees working around hazardous materials will usually wear respirators. They protect against environments with a lack of oxygen, harmful dust and debris, and a host of other hazards that can cause severe illnesses such as cancer, chronic lung impairment or death.

Respirators work in two ways: They filter particles from the air by using cartridges or canisters. Some respirators protect the wearer by supplying clean air from another source. These may include airline respirators, which get their compressed air remotely and have a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) with its own air supply.

Safety Goggles Prevent Injuries

Dusty environments not only wreak havoc on the lungs, but they can also cause eye injuries. When exposed to dust, workers should wear eyecup or cover-type safety goggles, the most effective form of eye protection because they create a protective seal around the eyes. Some goggles may have prescription lenses behind protective lenses for those who need to wear glasses. Safety goggles can also protect a worker's eyes in the event of moderate impact, but do not protect against optical radiation.

Goggles come in direct, indirect or non-ventilated types in terms of ventilation. Direct ventilated goggles prevent workers from inhaling airborne particles and dust while allowing air circulation. Indirect-ventilated goggles allow air to circulate as they prevent fogging and offer protection against liquids or chemical splashes. Non-ventilated goggles do not allow for the passage of air into the area the goggle covers and prevent splashes. This type of goggle fogs often and needs frequent lens cleaning.