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Medical surveillance requirements under OSHA's silica standard

Workers in California who risk exposure to respirable crystalline silica should know that OSHA, as of July 23, is enforcing compliance with its Respirable Crystalline Silica Standard for both maritime and general industries. That date signaled the end of a one-month delay where OSHA provided compliance assistance to employers in good faith. Now, employers who violate the standards will pay a penalty and be put on OSHA's violator list.

In addition to the new obligations regarding hazard assessment, air sampling, exposure control and housekeeping practices, OSHA's silica standards contain medical surveillance requirements. Medical surveillance is meant to identify silica-related diseases, determine if employees with conditions like lung cancer are more sensitive to silica exposure and determine if employees are fit enough to wear respirators.

Employers are mandated to offer medical surveillance in cases where silica exposure exceeds the permissible exposure limit for 30 or more days a year; they do not have to be consecutive days. This 30-day minimum applies to each individual employee.

Employers should not rotate employees to avoid exceeding the 30-day minimum. While the standards do not forbid this, this practice can make the tracking of employees' silica exposure levels more difficult.

Medical surveillance must be free for employees. Employers cannot force employees to see a healthcare professional but must offer medical examinations whenever the rule triggers for medical surveillance.

Even when employers follow all federal safety guidelines, accidents can happen. Those who incur work-related injuries may still be reimbursed for their medical expenses and for at least a portion of their lost wages by filing for workers compensation benefits. By filing, victims will waive the right to sue their employer regarding the same incident. The filing process can be complex, so victims may wish to retain an attorney. Legal assistance might be especially helpful if an appeal must be mounted.

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