To avoid lost productivity and fines, industries should implement plan for silica exposure compliance ahead of deadline

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Don Snizaski, CEO, Life and Safety Consultants Inc.  

Like a small sliver of glass or sand on the beach, it can enter the airways and lungs of exposed construction, general-industry, and maritime workers. Wherever there is sanding, blasting, or disturbing of stone and concrete, silica is in the air.

Crystalline silica, a mineral found in a variety of materials, including sand, stone, rock, concrete, brick, block, and mortar, can lead to lung cancer, silicosis, or kidney disease if inhaled.

Because of this danger, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued safer workplace standards for silica exposure in summer 2016. However, companies in related industries were given extended schedules to conform. Construction companies have just begun to comply in September, while general-industry and maritime companies have until June 23, 2018.

OSHA’s new silica standards require affected companies to ensure the harmful bits of material don’t exceed a permissible exposure limit of 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air during an eight-hour shift.

As outlined by OSHA, other key provisions require that employers use engineering controls (such as water or ventilation), provide respirators, limit worker access to high-exposure areas, develop a written exposure control plan, and offer medical exams and relevant training materials to their employees.

With 300,000 affected workers nationwide, general-industry and maritime operations in brick manufacturing, foundries, hydraulic fracturing, and shipyards are preparing to apply OSHA’s new standard next year.

General-industry employees are often exposed to silica while using abrasive blasting to clean or shape a variety of surfaces. Shipyard employees are subjected to the carcinogen when working on abrasive blasting operations to remove paint from the steel hulls and bulkheads of ships.

In the meantime, the clock is ticking for the construction industry’s 2 million strong.  Brian Gallagher, vice president of marketing with Greenville construction company O’Neal Inc., expects that companies could face high costs as they struggle to fulfill OSHA’s new standard and mitigate risk for employees working around silica.

If not immediately addressed through proper training, equipment, and planning, simple activities like cutting slabs of concrete could negatively affect not only the construction and maintenance groups performing the work, but surrounding employees as well, he said. The new standard’s impact will leave its mark on many industries, including upstream manufacturers planning construction, expansion, or retrofit projects.

Although construction companies around the country are adapting to the new standard, Gallagher said manufacturing firms will be expected to shoulder some of the responsibility.

These companies will need to address the presence of silica in all stages of project planning, he said. They will need to take appropriate precautions and engage qualified contractors that have been proactive in dealing with the silica mandates.

Here in South Carolina, it would be hard to imagine a ride along a major roadway or a stroll through a big city, without the familiar sights and sounds of development.

From $100 million transportation projects and commercial expansion to spacious city parks and hotel construction, development, hard hats, and crane-dotted skylines have become commonplace.

Should any construction outfit struggle with compliance, it risks fines and a stop in production. Hammers and cranes will not “clank” again until current silica levels are painstakingly determined and a variety of other standards are subsequently met.

The silica levels are ascertained through an air-monitoring test, which is done by placing meters on exposed employees. Once completed, the tests are sent to a lab for analysis.

Meanwhile, work is still shut down.

The tests will determine whether employees should wear respirators. However, respirator programs are very involved and can be a lengthy process to implement. Employees must first be medically qualified to wear the device. If they are not qualified, further medical evaluations may be required.

In addition, there is mask fitting, maintenance, training, and employee monitoring. Essentially, without compliance, the project is halted, money is lost, government fines are levied, and people could become sick.

Although compliance-related issues should be expected, the new standard has provided somewhat of a fail-safe. OSHA requires that each company in the affected industries have a competent person on site, whether an employee or third-party, to assess and maintain the new silica regulations.

As the construction industry continues to to implement the rules, and as the regulation reshapes protocol and safety measures up and down the industry and its many subsidiaries, the standard’s next targets, general industry and maritime, should take notes in preparation for their own deadline next summer.

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