OSHA’s new silica standard for construction contains a requirement long recommended by experts: employers covered by the standard must designate a competent person. This person will implement the written exposure control plan. Various definitions for “competent person” are used within different regulatory standards. This article will discuss the respirable crystalline silica competent person in construction. OSHA has separated construction respirable crystalline silica (29 CFR 1926.1153) from general industry and maritime, which do not have a competent person requirement. OSHA estimates that the rule will save over 600 lives and prevent more than 900 new cases of silicosis per year across all industries. Silicosis is a preventable, progressive occupational lung disease with no effective, specific treatment; patients can only be offered supportive care. Acute silicosis following extremely high exposures is also a concern—not just low-dose, long-term exposure—due to the retention of the material in the lungs. OSHA puts this hazard in perspective in its publication
Frequently Asked Questions: Respirable Crystalline Silica Rule:
“more workers died from silicosis in 2014 than in fires, or from being caught in or crushed by collapsing materials, such as trench and structure collapse.”
The competent person is crucial to success towards decreasing construction workplace exposures because of greater variability in the work environment. Construction has no set regulated areas, often complicated work settings at customer sites, and the need for coordination with other trades and the client. In construction, multiple regulated activities happening simultaneously is a likely scenario. Competent persons will play a vital role in the success of this new regulation because approximately 85 percent of silica-affected workers are in construction trades, which have a larger share of occupations with high potential for overexposure. OSHA defined “competent person” in this standard as
an individual who is capable of identifying existing and foreseeable respirable crystalline silica hazards in the workplace and who has authorization to take prompt corrective measures to eliminate or minimize them. The Competent Person must have the knowledge and ability necessary to fulfill the responsibilities set forth [in 29 CFR 1926.1153(g)].
A common error is for all competent person tasks to be assigned to one superintendent, lead foreman, or senior worker by default for a job site. The employer should choose the most suitable person or persons at each job site to serve as the OSHA competent person for each regulation that requires one. It is perfectly acceptable to have multiple OSHA competent persons on a job site who each oversee a different regulation, or to have multiple competent persons for a single regulation to provide overlap, particularly for larger job sites, when there is a need to cover multiple shifts, when there is a need for timely coordination with other trades, to increase support at the start of a new project, and to oversee heavy use of regulated materials. While the regulation uses somewhat vague language in requiring “frequent and regular inspections of job sites,” the competent person should be someone who is on the work site with the crew and in a position to move around and observe tasks involving respirable crystalline silica during the work shift. The person assigned to the task should understand the work materials, equipment, and processes. The knowledge and skill of a competent person will not be equivalent to that of a Certified Industrial Hygienist; however, the competent person should assist with hazard assessments, monitoring, and designing controls. A CIH can support employers in developing the written exposure control plan and assist with related programs. The sheer amount of available information on silica, covering many decades, is confusing to navigate. OSHA’s new regulation means changing how things are done for many workplaces, which will undoubtedly continue triggering safety- and health-related questions from the work force. Related programs that may need support include long-term data analysis of exposure, personal protective equipment, and medical monitoring.
Employers need to provide a written exposure control plan for the competent person, who oversees its implementation. The competent person should be part of the team drafting this plan to provide information about the work site materials, equipment, conditions, processes, and other vital details. If the employer will be developing a written exposure control plan that incorporates the alternative exposure control methods section of the regulation, a CIH is recommended, at a minimum, to oversee monitoring and sampling activities. The accuracy of the written exposure control plan is critical. While there is no set format required by regulation, the plan should explain exposure scenarios, provide directions for how to do the work in the manner determined to be most protective, communicate requirements for protection, and serve as information for medical providers who need to understand employee exposure. Workers will defer to this plan for guidance. OSHA does not expressly state that the plan needs to be site specific, but to meet the requirements of the regulation, it inevitably should be. The employer needs to officially designate the competent person and provide this person the authorization to take prompt corrective measures. This information should also be included in training, as the regulation requires employers to ensure that each affected employee “can demonstrate knowledge and understanding… [of] the identity of the designated competent person.” According to the standard, the competent person should understand tasks covered by the written exposure control plan; the control measures (engineering, work practices, and respiratory protection) used to limit employee exposure for each task; housekeeping measures used to limit exposure; and “procedures used to restrict access to work areas when necessary to minimize the number of employees exposed…and their levels of exposure, including exposures generated by other employers or sole proprietors.” So, OSHA clearly states that the competent person should be able to foresee respirable crystalline silica hazards and has the authorization to take prompt corrective measures to provide employees protection from the work of other contractors in the vicinity. Having inspected the job site for the implementation of the written exposure control plan, the competent person can be an asset in OSHA’s requirement for reviewing and evaluating the effectiveness of the plan at least annually and updating it if necessary.
OSHA did not require specific training for the competent person for respirable crystalline silica. It will be up to each employer to develop its own training systems.
The competent person will often work in conjunction with and serve as the point of contact for safety, human resources, and management for the company’s respirable crystalline silica program. Responsibilities of the competent person may include performing critical tasks such as ensuring that new workers obtain required training before exposure, overseeing personal protective equipment use, ensuring a response to changing workplace conditions, and coordinating with other trades. For multi-contractor work sites, the competent person will probably serve as a designated point of contact for a company’s respirable crystalline silica work areas. In line with other standards, OSHA did not require specific training for the competent person for respirable crystalline silica. It will be up to each employer to develop its own training systems. It will be in employers’ best interests to make prudent choices when considering liability implications—not just from employees, but also work site periphery, or when working around occupied areas. By officially designating a competent person, the employer will vouch for his or her suitability to perform the tasks required by the regulation for the assigned job site. In my experience, many people selected to serve as competent persons did not feel qualified for the position and requested more specific training on the topic. At a minimum, employers must provide training to competent persons covering the written exposure control plan and modifications to the hazard communication program for training on silica and updated labeling, as described in 29 CFR 1926.1153(i). Based on personal experience, I recommend adding an explanation of OSHA’s Multi-Employer Citation Policy, OSHA Directive Number CPL 02-00-124, to a competent person training program. This policy is commonly misunderstood and is applicable to multi-employer job sites often found in construction. When taking into account the numbers presented by OSHA for silicosis, the significant health hazards from respirable crystalline silica to construction workers cannot be argued. However, silicosis is not the only disease associated with respirable crystalline silica. OSHA uses hard numbers from reporting databases when developing its reported figures, but, similar to data for other diseases, it is widely accepted that true values are likely higher due to underreporting and undiagnosed cases. Therefore, the value of OSHA’s new silica rule may be higher than predicted. Ultimately, the success of the program in construction will be strongly impacted by the capacity of front-line players such as competent persons, who will need employer support, resources, and quality written exposure control plans.
Considerable information about silica is available online for various audiences, and reflects the changes in knowledge that occurred over decades of study. OSHA’s new silica rule adds another dimension to this information: modifications to measurement and exposure limits. The help of a CIH or the assistance of OSHA’s free consultation services, where applicable, is recommended. I recommend the following resources:
on its
final rule to protect workers from exposure to respirable crystalline silica
is a starting point for submitting questions to OSHA and accessing FAQs, health information, background material, fact sheets, and industry-specific regulatory text. Both OSHA and Cal/OSHA provide an eTool covering silica. Cal/OSHA’s is available on the
of the state Department of Industrial Relations. OSHA’s
Small Entity Compliance Guide for the Respirable Crystalline Silica Standard for Construction
) is intended to help small business employers comply with its respirable crystalline silica standard for construction. NIOSH
resources on silica
include links to sampling and analytical methods, recommendations for preventing silicosis, and information on respirators, surveillance, and health effects. The Washington State Department of Labor & Industries provides a “
Silica in Construction Training Kit
” for instructors. An online, interactive version of the course is available, along with several videos covering topics such as respiratory protection. The International Labor Organization provides
on the ILO/WHO Global Programme for the Elimination of Silicosis (GPES) and the National Programmes for the Elimination of Silicosis (NPES). The programs are not currently active in the U.S., but have been established in many countries. ASTM International publishes the voluntary standards ASTM E1132,
Standard Practice for Health Requirements Relating to Occupational Exposure to Respirable Crystalline Silica
, and ASTM E2625,
Standard Practice for Controlling Occupational Exposure to Respirable Crystalline Silica for Construction and Demolition Activities
. More information is available from the ASTM
. The U.K. Health and Safety Executive (HSE) publishes “Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Essentials” guidance
. These documents include valuable information covering silica control methods in various construction applications. WorkSafeBC, the Workers’ Compensation Board of British Columbia, Canada, provides free resources and videos that can be used for training. WorkSafeBC’s video on silica exposure can help explain how silica enters the body and produces damage. Learn more at the WorkSafeBC
. Leading up to the new regulation, the AIHA Construction Committee released
Recommended Skills and Capabilities for Silica Competent Persons (
. This document outlines subject-specific skills and competency objectives for training programs and discusses limitations of the competent person approach. The Center for Construction Research and Training (CPWR) provides
tools and information
for identifying silica hazards, understanding the health risk, and finding equipment and methods to control the dust. A three-step tool, “
Create-A-Plan to Control Dust
,” is designed to help those who are developing a written exposure control plan. No registration is needed to use the tool, and users can confidentially print, email, or download plans. With account registration, plans can be saved for later modification. The tool is especially convenient for competent persons facing a change in work method on the job or wondering about possible exposures caused by nearby operations of other contractors. And remember, OSHA provides free, confidential safety and occupational health advice to small and medium-sized businesses through its On-site Consultation Program. Visit the OSHA
for small businesses or call (800) 321-OSHA.
The standard went into effect on June 23, 2016. To allow time for internal assessment and for companies to develop programs for compliance, OSHA gave employers in construction another year, until June 23, 2017, before enforcement will begin. The agency placed an additional delay on sample analysis, with requirements going into effect June 23, 2018.
is owner of Hygiene Health and Safety Consulting LLC in Brookville, Md., and a member of the AIHA Construction Committee. She can be reached at (240) 888-2371 or
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Not Just Another
The Role of the Competent Person in OSHA’s

Respirable Crystalline Silica Standard for Construction


Editors' note:
A regulatory freeze issued January 20 potentially affects several regulations related to occupational and environmental health and safety. See the
AIHA website
for more information.