The Silica Inspector Is Coming … Relax, You’ve Got Facts

Kay Rowntree, Brent Charlton, and Mary Kay Crowley

OSHA’s Respiratory Crystalline Silica (RCS) Rule 1910.1053 marked its two-year implementation anniversary in June with a new OSHA Directive, known as a CPL, that spells out how OSHA will enforce the standard––including what inspectors will be looking for and likely doing when they come to do a foundry inspection. Three industrial hygiene experts put this CPL 0202-080 under the microscope and identified key ways metalcasters can face scrutiny should it come their way.

Looking back since the silica rule went into effect in October 2018, instances of federal and state citations resulting from onsite foundry inspections have mostly consisted of a handful of three- and four-figure fines, although 37 citations and a serious penalty totaling over $120,000 were levied in one case following nine inspections. The infractions included noncompliance in the areas of: exceeding the Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL), lack of or inadequate feasible engineering controls, respirators, exposure assessments, employee notification, regulated areas, written exposure control plans, housekeeping, medical surveillance and Hazard Communication (HazCom). 

The pandemic significantly curtailed OSHA inspections this year, which could account for the tame volume of silica rule citations throughout half of the rule’s entire existence. But experts fully anticipate a surge of enforcement activity when the virus eventually abates, and when that day comes, foundries are advised to be ready with documentation showing their good-faith efforts to perform RCS assessments and a host of other requirements that may have been suspended or altered during the COVID-19 crack-down.  

One thing the rule and its subsequent CPL have taught the metalcasting industry is that documentation may well be the cornerstone of RCS foundry compliance. Foundry owners may be metal scientists but they’ve now got to think like the medical community, too: If it wasn’t documented, it didn’t happen. 

Documenting and building a deep reservoir of data becomes especially critical if a foundry considers using the standard’s “performance option” as opposed to doing scheduled quarterly or semi-annual monitoring. But to take advantage of that flexibility, Industrial Hygienist Kay Rowntree emphasizes, “you need really great documentation of your rationale for switching away from scheduled monitoring––you can’t use it if you have limited data. You need to have a solid database to say, okay, we understand what these exposures are here,” she added. “As always, if OSHA decides that they don’t like your data, they’re going to conduct their own sampling and maybe challenge you on whether or not you were correct in not doing your scheduled monitoring.”

Another major lesson the industry must take to heart is the high importance of employee communication. Cross every t and dot those i’s when it comes to both the letter and spirit of requirements dealing with people—not only is the safety of people at the crux of the rule in the first place, but OSHA inspectors will absolutely speak one-on-one with employees during an inspection. Foundry management can be transparent and thorough with employee communication now, or embarrassed (and fined) later.    

A third RCS lesson best engraved in every foundry’s playbook: Inspectors won’t come on the day of your choosing. In the context of in-house sampling/testing, experts don’t recommend basing any documentation or decision-making on best-case scenarios. Far better to know and record the poorest conditions you’re ever likely to have and base the company’s compliance plan on that. 

“OSHA’s going to come in on your worst day,” said Brent Charlton, safety director at Metal Technologies of Indiana, “when the doors are all closed, it’s high humidity, and your ventilation system is struggling—that’s when they’re going to show up. Your sampling needs to be on your worst day ... because I would almost guarantee they’re going to do their own sampling [during an inspection].”  

Inspection Day

On the subject of in-house sampling, Charlton has a basic assumption: Every foundry is doing it, either with its internal EHS personnel or using an outside industrial hygiene (IH) firm.

“If you haven’t assessed your exposures with sampling data by now, you’re way behind the curve, and you need to get that done,” Charlton said. 

“I also want to remind you, if OSHA is going to collect an air sample, you should collect the sample side by side [at the same time], which means your employees have to wear two pumps and two collection devices—but it’s a good idea. I know this will shock everybody, but OSHA is not perfect; they do make mistakes.”

Collecting data alongside the inspector is a “just in case” precaution, especially if the foundry’s data doesn’t match OSHA’s. Charlton also recommends a foundry staff person take the same pictures of anything a compliance officer is photographing. 

Mary Kay Crowley, a senior industrial hygienist with John Deere, adds one more tip for inspection day.

“If you have an industrial hygiene person available, they should participate in the whole process––but also make sure that somebody is escorting the officer the whole time they’re on site,” Crowley said. 

That’s what the foundry should be doing—here’s what to expect at the beginning of an RCS inspection:  
They’ll review the employer’s written Exposure Control Plan (ECP) to determine where exposures are and what engineering controls and work practices have been or are planned to be implemented for each listed task. 

They’ll review exposure records or other data the employer has used to assess exposures.
OSHA will collect samples if (A) the employer has not assessed exposure, (B) the employer’s assessment indicates exposures could exceed the PEL, or (C) the employer’s assessment is deemed inadequate.

Construction Versus General Silica Standards

With two years under the industry’s collective belt––buckling down on RCS compliance––some metalcasting companies prefer the simplicity of following the Construction standard for respirable crystalline silica (1926.1153) rather than the 1910.1053 General Industry standard. But like many government rules, it’s not quite so easy.

While the two sets of standards have similarities, there are some important differences, and those wishing to use Table 1 of the Construction standard (“Table 1—Specified Exposure Control Methods When Working With Materials Containing Crystalline Silica”) must meet many conditions. Also, while the Construction standard can apply to maintenance and repair work at the foundry, any tasks that are performed routinely––even a few times per year–– don’t apply. That means refractory removal and reline work do not meet the Construction criteria, but some repair or construction work done by foundry employees might apply.

The question is, is it worth the risk of bouncing back and forth between the two standards, which experts say can get confusing and expose a foundry to compliance errors? Even if the foundry brings in a contractor or uses its maintenance crew to do some bona-fide construction work that qualifies for Construction’s Table 1 water, dust collection or and/or respirator methods, as soon as they use the same kind of jackhammer, say, for a refractory demolition, you slide back under General Industry requirements. Foundries may be better off sticking with the General Industry standard instead of second-guessing, and potentially guessing wrong.

People, Places, Products

The overarching themes in RCS compliance include (1) what employers do to protect and inform their employees, which trickles down into (2) managing regulated areas, as well as (3) utilizing specific products such as authentic respirators and genuine HEPA vacuums.

People—Be aware employees have to be notified—in writing—of the results of any air sampling you do for silica within 15 days following receipt of the results. The foundry must provide this notification to all affected employees, including those who do the same job but weren’t actually wearing the testing equipment, for example. Rowntree urges foundries to speak with employees openly and frequently—remember, OSHA certainly will be asking them about whether they’ve been notified and about how well they understand your protective plans and procedures. Be sure to document all communication and even have employees sign a form acknowledging their receipt of written information—because at the end of the day, people do forget things they’ve been told. 

RCS 1910.1053 also makes provision for employees to receive medical surveillance (MS), and employers must include anyone in their RCS MS program who has worked in a job exceeding the action level for more than 30 days per year. Seeing a medical provider must be free to the employee, and employers must pay for travel to and from the provider, as well as for the time spent getting an exam. If a change in exposure has occurred so the employee is working in a job over the action level, an exam must be provided as soon as possible. Keep in mind, the employer is responsible to ensure the X-ray is reviewed by a “B” classified reader; but the X-ray itself doesn’t have to be performed by a B reader. 

As always, over-communicating about the foundry MS program is better than under-communicating. Employees can decline to participate—just be sure to document and capture their signature waiving your offer. What if the foundry’s using temporary employees? The buck stops with the employer, so treat them like your own full-time personnel in every way, experts say, when it comes to RCS compliance. 

People also need HazCom training, but, according to Rowntree, most of what’s called for is covered by the training foundries already perform under separate HazCom rules, 1910.1200. Basic RCS training is necessary even if exposures are below the action level. She notes, too, this training must allow for Q&A, so there’s no one-and-done video watching that’s acceptable here. And while OSHA doesn’t mandate the frequency of RCS HazCom training, consider how you’ll respond if a compliance officer discovers your employees lack critical understanding. HazCom signage matters, too—one foundry was cited for not having HazCom labeling on the outside of a dust collector.

Places—Regulated areas are specifically designated places within the foundry where the exposure exceeds or is reasonably expected to exceed the PEL. The key thing for foundries is to restrict access, Rowntree stresses.

“You need to think about how you are restricting access to everyone––and that’s an everyone with an underline in bold; that means everyone,” she said. “And even though it may defy logic as to why someone who’s in a regulated area [RA] for two or three minutes has to wear a respirator, that’s the way the RCS Standard reads.” 

Think carefully, however, before going down the rabbit hole of assigning “temporary regulated area” designations. If employees are confused, it’ll lead to problems. 

To be fully prepared for an inspection:

  • Observe and manage who enters an RA.
  • Be crystal clear on how RAs are identified.
  • Interview employees about their knowledge of RAs—and fix misunderstandings with additional training.

One bright side of RAs is there’s no limit on its size––it may be prudent to keep them small and very narrowly defined, such as an area immediately surrounding the grinder, notes Charlton; just big enough for the operator to do his work. Limiting RA spaces can help keep confusion and cumbersome respiratory gear to a minimum.

“You can make [an RA] as small as you want or as big as you want, as long as you’ve got the data to back up your decision,” said Charlton.

Products—The RCS rule is tightly focused on two objects employers need to protect their people from breathing respirable crystalline silica—respirators and dust removing equipment––and, to be blunt, there’s no shortcut or cheap alternative that will result in a satisfactory outcome.


“If you’re complying with the respiratory protection standard in 1910.134, there’s really nothing unique in the silica standard beyond that,” said Rowntree. She cautions foundries on two issues: (1) medical evaluations for respirator wearers, and (2) ubiquitous counterfeit respirators.

Cautions over COVID-19 made in-person clinic visits tricky this year, but, says Charlton, not every foundry realizes remote questionnaires can be submitted to a doctor for review.  

“There are a couple of misconceptions out there,” he said. “One is that the clinic visit is required––it’s not required unless the doctor says, ‘I need to see him in person’ after reviewing that questionnaire. The other misconception is a pulmonary function test (PFT) is a requirement. It is not required unless the doctor says ‘I need to do a PFT.’" 

Whatever you do, he adds, don’t put someone in a respirator without a physician’s ok.

Crowley notes if an employee doesn’t get an annual fit test this year, employers should remind them to do fit checks and document their good faith efforts to comply and to make sure employees are protected. Take extra precautions to sanitize fit testing equipment.

Meanwhile, be on guard against imported respirators with fake certifications, warns Rowntree, adding,

“There is a lot of junk out there. So just be very careful in what you’re buying—stick with the tried and true.” EBay and Amazon are not necessarily reliable places to buy respirators, sources concur. 


Use similar vigilance in the foundry’s housekeeping purchases, as well. The other product OSHA’s watching carefully is vacuums used for housekeeping work, and they’re not all created equal. 
OSHA requires HEPA vacs, and manyshop vacs don’t cut it; nor do leaf blowers or any type of compressed air unit. Drivable or walk-behind vacuums are acceptable, according to Rowntree, if they’re equipped with a HEPA filter. And if it’s someone job to run a vacuum unit throughout the day, do an exposure assessment on that person, to be on the safe side.

“HEPA vacs are expensive for a reason,” she said. “They’re tightly sealed; they don’t allow dust to escape. Just because it has a HEPA filter does not necessarily mean it qualifies as a HEPA vac.”

Take care on how people clean vacuums. If they’re using a blowing device to clean interior parts of the vac, guess where all that nicely captured dust is going? 

And keep these dust-collecting products well maintained, Charlton added.

“If your vac is going down the aisle spewing dust out the back end of it, you’re probably going to get cited.”    

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