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Construction companies and equipment suppliers have had one date circled on their calendars all summer—Sept. 23—the day OSHA is set to begin enforcing a rule that sets tougher limits on construction workers’ exposure to breathable silica.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Steve Smithgall, senior vice president for operations and safety at Balfour Beatty US, among the nation’s largest general contractors, told Bloomberg BNA. “They’ve known since the 1940s that silica is bad for people.”
At equipment manufacturer Bosch Power Tools, the company’s director of strategic development, Jim Bohn, said he can measure interest in the rule by tracking purchases of tools and attachments designed to prevent silica exposure.
“Since the end of July, there’s been a three-fold increase in orders,” Bohn told Bloomberg BNA. “(Buyers) understand what they need.”
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued the final rule in March 2016, following decades of debate on whether to approve tougher requirements on how much airborne silica workers can be exposed to without triggering debilitating lung illnesses.
OSHA expects the regulations to prevent 642 deaths annually and 918 moderate to severe silicosis cases. ( RIN:1218-AB70). The agency initially set June 23 as the compliance deadline for builders, but the Trump administration extended the deadline by three months.
For construction, the silica rule sets a permissible exposure limit (PEL) for airborne crystalline silica of 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air (50 μg/m3), 80 percent less than the old construction limit of 250 μg/m3 set in 1971.
The 50 microgram limit also applies to general industry and maritime employers, but their compliance deadline comes later on June 23, 2018.
Tool manufacturers are offering a range of new designs and attachments to limit the amount of silica-laden dust at construction sites.
Companies such as DeWalt, Milwaukee Tool and Bosch have responded with hand tools that have built-in vacuums, filters and collector boxes as well as kits that attach to tools. A common answer for hand-held tools used to drill or punch their way into concrete is to vacuum away the dust at the contact point, then contain the collected dust.
Buying gear to comply with the silica rule comes at the same time battery powered cordless tools are becoming more popular, DeWalt’s concrete product manager, Ricky Cacchiotti, told Bloomberg BNA.
DeWalt’s cordless rotary hammers have self-contained vacuums, including OSHA-mandated HEPA filters, Cacchiotti said. Workers don’t have to connect a hose to an industrial vacuum on the floor.
If a contractor prefers to upgrade existing gear, Milwaukee Tool offers an attachable kit that fits on its tools as well as other manufacturers’ equipment, according to Kevin Gee, the company’s product manager.
To take advantage of built-in vacuum systems, Bosch has designed a hollow drill bit that allows dust to be sucked through the bit into a containment box, Bohn said.For when large quantities of dust are being produced such as grinding a floor surface, a rolling vacuum system may be a better option, Gee said.
Unlike a typical industrial vacuum that loses effectiveness as its filter becomes clogged with dust, dust extractors maintain a constant airflow by automatically cleaning the extractor’s HEPA filter, Gee said.
Just how prepared contractors are may depend on the builder’s size. Large general contractors, like Balfour Beatty, were poised to comply soon after the rule’s March 2016 release, while small subcontractors may be waiting to see how OSHA enforces the rule before purchasing new equipment.
A key to the early efforts at Balfour Beatty was a train-the-trainer program and classes that even some administrative staff attended, Smithgall said. Altogether, about 3,000 employees were involved.
Instruction also extended to many of Balfour Beatty’s prime subcontractors, which are also expected to comply with the rule.
Employees understood what changes to work practices and tools were needed to comply, Smithgall said. The topics that most-often prompted questions regarded medical and recordkeeping mandates such as the rule’s requirement for offering workers medical tests and fit-tested respirators.
Balfour Beatty worksites are already complying with the rule, Smithgall said. In addition to limiting exposure to silica from concrete drilling, cutting, and grinding, workers are taking steps to limit silica exposure from building demolitions and sandy construction zones.For one demolition site workers used three water hoses to suppress dust, Smithgall said. At a different outdoor site, workers operating heavy equipment sat inside an enclosed driver’s compartment breathing filtered air.
At Associated General Contractors—an industry organization—there are questions on how OSHA expects contractors to meet the standard, Kevin Cannon, the group’s senior director of safety and health services, told Bloomberg BNA.
OSHA still hasn’t issued its enforcement directive for the rule, Cannon said. Although the guidance is intended for agency inspectors, the directive is useful for others trying to understand which practices will comply with the rule.
While OSHA did issue a 95-page guide for small contractors, Cannon said, it isn’t realistic to think a company owner, who may double as the safety director, has time to read the document.
Cannon suggested that OSHA consider publishing a shorter guide dealing with specific issues.
Associated General Contractors is among several construction and manufacturer organizations challenging the rule in federal court.
Three days after the enforcement deadline, three federal judges in Washington Sept. 26 will hear arguments from union and industry attorneys asking the court to change the rule’s mandates. Department of Labor attorneys will defend the rule during the two-hour hearing at the U.S. Court of Appeals for District of Columbia Circuit ( N. Am.'s Bldg, Trades Unions v. OSHA , D.C. Cir., No. 16-1105, 8/17/17 ).
Industry attorneys will be representing a host of interests, including home builders, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, metal foundries, and construction material manufacturers. All the groups urged the court to reverse the new silica exposure limits. They claim current technology can’t lower exposure levels at an affordable price.
Issues raised by unions center on the rule’s requirements for when employers must offer free silica exposure testing to workers and what happens to a worker’s job security when doctors decide an employee can no longer be in a position where silica exposure is likely.
The judges will likely take several months to issue their order.
To contact the reporter on this story: Bruce Rolfsen in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rachael Daigle at email@example.com
The silica construction rule is available at https://www.osha.gov/silica/SilicaConstructionRegText.pdf.
OSHA's compliance guide for small contractors https://www.osha.gov/Publications/OSHA3902.pdf.
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