Silica Safety Enforcement Ramps Up at Construction Sites

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By Bruce Rolfsen

Six months into federal safety regulators enforcing a rule that protects construction workers from breathable silica, compliance is a work in progress, building industry safety professionals said.

Examples of how to reduce silica dust, which can cause a potentially fatal lung disease, are a starting point. But the construction industry continues to look at practical ways to meet the standards and educate workers and supervisors about the requirements.

When silica dust is inhaled, it can scar lung tissues, sometimes leading to the lung disease silicosis, making breathing difficult. In some cases, it can cause death. The rule, issued in March 2016, lowered the allowable exposure level to silica by 80 percent.

“There is still a long way to go to total compliance,” Steve Smithgall, senior vice president for national safety and operations at commercial contractor Balfour Beatty Plc in Fairfax, Va., told Bloomberg Environment.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration‘s enforcement of the rule (29 C.F.R. 1926.1153) is gradually gaining momentum since compliance requirements took effect Sept. 23. The agency and states using the federal rule cited 116 alleged silica violations at companies around the U.S. as of April 17, a Bloomberg Environment analysis of agency records show.

The number of violations in the initial six months is likely to increase since OSHA can take up to six months after an inspection to issue citations.

Increasing Awareness

Spreading compliance information—especially to small subcontractors—is a priority, Jason Harris, a construction manager for TRI Pointe Homes, a homebuilding company in Denver, told Bloomberg Environment.

“We’re just trying to get people aware,” said Harris, a member of the Job Site Safety Committee for the Home Builders Association of Metro Denver.

General contractors have to make sure their subcontractors comply with the rule because general contractors at sites where OSHA finds silica problems could face citations if the agency believes they were responsible for silica protections, according to Dan Johnson, managing partner of the safety consulting firm SFI Compliance Inc. in Denver .

OSHA citations have been limited so far.

Agency data that Bloomberg Environment reviewed show that when silica hazards are cited on job sites, they are usually grouped with other safety rule violations, such as fall protection, and part of inspections looking at all aspects of a work site‘s safety and health protections.

OSHA declined an interview request from Bloomberg Environment focusing on the rule.

Setting the Table

The rule requires employers to monitor silica dust levels at work sites and then take action when limits are exceeded. Frequent monitoring isn’t required if contractors and workers follow procedures, called “Table 1,” which is outlined in the rule.

Table 1 includes 18 construction methods. Many involve vacuuming dust into bags or spraying water to prevent silica dust from blowing away.

A common misunderstanding of Table 1 among small contractors is that using respirators is the first option. Respirators are acceptable protection, but OSHA expects contractors to first change construction methods or tools to reduce the amount of silica that becomes airborne, Johnson said.

As for additions to Table 1, contractors would appreciate more guidance on jobs with minor exposure to silica, Johnson said.

The agency has published guidance, including a website and 101-page booklet intended for small contractors.

The National Association of Home Builders in Washington has submitted compliance questions to OSHA to help the agency write more guidance, its safety director, Robert Matuga, told Bloomberg Environment.

“OSHA is looking at this and I hope we’ll have something fairly soon,” Matuga said.

But depending solely on Table 1 can lead to problems, Balfour Beatty’s Smithgall said. For example, workers smoothing concrete and following Table 1 by using a vacuum-equipped grinder could find that the dust isn’t contained when they move from flat surfaces to round columns, he said.

And there are common issues that Table 1 doesn’t address, such as cleaning up the muddy slurry left when water has been used to stop silica dust from becoming airborne, Smithgall said.

Balfour Beatty has done some air monitoring to measure silica levels when grinding or cutting isn’t going on such as during cleanup work, he said. The goal is determining whether silica levels trigger the rule protection requirements.

Violations by the Numbers

Of the 116 silica violations cited, the most frequently mentioned provision, with 35 cases found by inspectors, was employers failing to measure silica exposure levels (29 C.F.R. 1926.1153(d)(2)(i)).

Almost as frequently cited, with 31 violations, is incorrectly following Table 1’s procedures (29 C.F.R. 1926.1153 (c)(1)), intended to reduce silica exposure.

OSHA is steadily increasing its enforcement of the rule as contractors were allowed to come into compliance and agency guidance on conducting inspections was solidified, records show.

Although the rule took effect in September, federal inspectors were initially instructed not to cite employers if the contractors were attempting to comply with the rule. Full enforcement began Oct. 23.

OSHA issued its first citation Nov. 8 and through the end of the year cited just 20 violations. In February, 50 violations were cited, followed by 19 in March.

Eighty percent of the cases were classified as serious violations. The rest were for other-than-serious violations as they were not an immediate threat to workers. While OSHA can propose serious violation fines as high as $12,934, the most costly proposed penalty was $9,239. An informal settlement knocked the fine down to $6,929.

A similar rule for general industry, including manufacturers, takes effect June 23 (29 C.F.R. 1910.1053).

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