The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has proposed a rule limiting worker exposure to airborne crystalline silica dust, which is generated by activities such as dry-sawing concrete or ripping out drywall. The justification is an estimate that more than 600,000 workers are exposed to levels that exceed the proposed permissible exposure limit (PEL) of 25 micrograms per cubic meter of air averaged over an eight-hour day. Two standards are being proposed: one for general industry and maritime, and the other for construction.

The construction rule would require employers to minimize dust by using engineering controls—wet saws, vacuum dust collection, and/or isolation of dusty areas. A worker exposed to silica dust for more than four hours per day would need a half-mask respirator. Those using the respirator for 30 or more days per year would need to be offered a medical exam.

Opponents worry that the rule will impose a financial hardship on small companies, that it doesn’t account for the realities of the jobsite, and that it will unnecessarily complicate simple tasks like cutting concrete or granite. “Remodelers will need to establish written protocols, in addition to training workers how to recognize hazards and how to use personal protective equipment,” says Mark Paskell of The Contractor Coaching Partnership, in Sterling, Mass. “But I can’t make you wear a respirator unless you’ve been cleared by a doctor.”

The most affected trades will likely be masonry and drywall contractors, but the rule could apply to any worker generating dust. That includes roofers installing concrete or clay tile, says Harry Dietz, director of risk management at the National Roofing Contractors Association. He says that the OSHA-mandated protective measures against dust could create a fall hazard.

“All of the proposed controls involve the use of vacuum lines or of hoses for wet cutting,” he points out. “The lines would be a trip hazard, and the water would be a slip hazard.” The association has submitted comments to OSHA but has yet to receive a response.

Representatives from The National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI) want more clarity on the implications for remodelers. “OSHA didn’t address the technical side in enough detail,” says Dan Taddie, NARI’s director of education. “If you’re spending 20 minutes grinding and sanding a countertop, or four hours gutting a small bathroom, it’s not clear what you will have to do in order to comply.” 

Taddie also claims that the agency has severely underestimated costs. “We believe that some remodelers could see an annual cost of $3,000 per employee,” he says.

The rule is even problematic for some attorneys. Eric Kimbel, a construction attorney with Saul Ewing LLP in Pittsburgh, says that, after reading the proposed rule, he still can’t say for sure who it will apply to. “Say you’re sweeping up drywall dust. Are you going to need a HEPA vac?” he asks. “It’s not clear.”

Some contractors also worry that if OSHA is as inconsistent in enforcing the rule as the EPA has been in enforcing its lead regulations, it would penalize companies that try to comply and reward those that don’t. “It will raise costs for companies like ours that try to do things right,” says Tom Miller, a remodeler in Portland, Ore.

Miller, who heads NARI’s government affairs committee, says his trade group wants OSHA to start over.

“We’re not denying that silica dust causes problems, but we would like to see a reasonable effort made to quantify the risk and the cost of compliance in our business,” Miller says.

OSHA received more than 1,700 comments from the public on the proposed rule, and more than 200 stakeholders provided testimony during public hearings. The agency hopes to finish analyzing the comments by June. Most industry observers believe the rule will be implemented. “The likely window may be after the November 2016 election but before President Obama leaves office in January 2017,” predicts Fred Hosier, editor of Safety News Alert.