Eli Meir Kaplan

The Obama administration is on track to put four new OSHA rules into effect in early 2016, as well as to change how its inspectors prioritize the types of violations they investigate. These will have varying effects on the remodeling industry.

Employers typically have to bring their practices and equipment into compliance within 60 days, though OSHA sometimes stretches that schedule. “If the regulations are burdensome to implement, businesses may get a longer timeline to get into compliance, but that would be an exception,” says Nickole Winnett, a lawyer at Jackson Lewis Law in Washington, D.C. “However, we don’t know the timeline until the final rule is published.”

Silica Exposure

The proposed Occupational Exposure to Crystalline Silica rule has been a long time coming (Remodeling published an article about it in March 2015). Now, however, industry insiders insist that it’s on a fast track. Winnett calls it “a top priority for the Obama administration and OSHA this year.”

Under the proposed rule, worker exposure to airborne silica dust would be limited to a new permissible exposure limit (PEL) of 50 micrograms of respirable crystalline silica per cubic meter of air (µg/m3). That’s half the current PEL of 100 µg/m3 for general industry.

The rule could have a big impact on remodelers by regulating common tasks that produce silica dust, such as cutting concrete roof tiles and drywall. Employers would be required to minimize dust using equipment and “engineering controls”—wet saws, vacuum dust collection, isolation of dusty areas, and half-mask respirators for workers exposed to silica dust for more than four hours per day. Workers using the respirator for 30 or more days per year would need to be offered a medical exam.

Employers will also be required to train workers on how to mitigate silica exposure. This could include training them how to hook up and use local exhaust systems on saws when cutting, and even where to stand to minimize dust exposure. And of course, the employer will have to document that training.

The rule could be published as early as February, giving businesses until April 2016 to implement it.

Slips, Trips, and Falls

Eli Meir Kaplan Appropriate fall protection systems, like updated harnesses, are one area OSHA will focus on in 2016.

OSHA originally expected to release its Walking Working Surfaces and Personal Fall Protection Systems rule in August 2015, but then pushed it back another eight months. The latest plan was to issue a final rule in the spring of 2016, but OSHA then withdrew it unexpectedly at the end of December. Although no explanation was given, insiders speculate that OSHA is focusing resources on silica. It remains committed to publishing a final Walking Working Surfaces and Personal Fall Protection rule before January 2017.

If implemented, the rule will update the requirements for personal fall protection systems by taking new technologies into account. OSHA hasn’t specified what these new technologies are, but safety experts believe the agency will be addressing recent innovations in products such as harnesses, lanyards, and guardrail systems.

Workplace Injury and Illness Tracking

In November 2013, OSHA proposed a new rule on electronic tracking of workplace injuries and illnesses. In March 2016, it is expected to issue a final rule requiring companies with 10 or more employees (half the current minimum of 20) to once a year electronically submit an OSHA 300A summary of injuries incurred by the workers. The rule would require larger employers with 250 or more workers to submit electronic versions of their injury and illness logs quarterly rather than yearly.

In a poll conducted by Safety News Alert in fall 2015, less than half of safety pros who responded favored the proposal. Those who objected say that injury and illness statistics may not reflect the effectiveness of a business’s safety program.

Rob Matuga, NAHB’s chief official on compliance issues, expressed concern to NAHB’s member remodelers that if OSHA makes these filings public, employers will under-report injuries to avoid bad publicity, as well as to avoid getting flagged by OSHA for investigation—though being too far below average might also raise red flags. Safety advocates also fear that the requirement will provide incentive for employers to under-report injury and illness, because that could skew the numbers below a level that would inspire the imposition of even more stringent safety rules.

Eye and Face Protection

Eli Meir Kaplan OSHA updates will also make it more important to make sure workers wear proper protective gear.

The Eye and Face Protection rule would bring OSHA equipment standards up to date with other government agencies. OSHA adopted standards for protection gear from the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) 40 years ago but hasn’t updated those to reflect changes in equipment. The revision will adopt the current ANSI standard, which includes testing requirements and minimum thicknesses for protective eyewear, as well as light transmittance requirements for tinted lenses.

The rule will likely be published in the spring. As most remodelers already use the latest in safety glasses and face protection, they are probably in compliance already. Those that aren’t will have 60 days to update their equipment.

New Inspection Priorities

OSHA is also rethinking the way it prioritizes inspections. In the past, the goal was to do as many inspections as possible; in 2016, however, the focus will shift to what Safety and Health magazine describes as “quality over quantity.” The agency’s “Enforcement Weighting System” will allow inspectors to spend more time on specific investigations in targeted areas.

This could be a big deal for remodelers, as the silica rule will likely be one of those targeted areas. “Remodelers should take the time needed to fully understand the silica rule,” advises Winnett. “It’s a high priority for OSHA and will be heavily enforced.”