Eliminate the Dust: Complying With the New Silica Standard

As NAHBNow has reported, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has decreased the permissible levels of exposure to crystalline silica for construction.

NAHB has told policy makers from the start that this wide-reaching rule will be difficult to meet and enforce. But it’s the law of the land, pending any change from NAHB’s legal challenge still outstanding.

Dan Johnson, CSP, managing partner of SFI Compliance Inc., a national safety consulting firm and member of the NAHB Safety Committee, told us what home builders need to know to comply with the new rule and avoid fines.

It looks like you’re going to be busy.

It is a far-reaching standard, and a challenge to comply with in many ways. Home builders definitely need to be aware of this. Even if you use subcontractors, builders may still have oversight responsibilities for the jobsite. OSHA, under its multi-employer citation policy, calls that the “controlling employer.” As the CE, the home builder has general oversight responsibility over the jobsite, including the power to correct safety and health violations itself or require others to correct them.  This creates potential liability for the builder if crystalline silica exposures above the permissible levels are present.

What materials or actions create silica dust?

Silica naturally exists in things like soil, stone and granite. It becomes an exposure issue for workers when dust is created from the many work processes of home building including drilling, chipping, sawing and sanding materials like tile, concrete, brick, stone, fiber cement siding and others. In short, it’s really about the dust.

How can silica dust be mitigated to meet this rule?

For your subcontractors, or you if it’s your team doing the work, it’s a matter of keeping silica dust out of the air so that it is out of the breathable zone of the worker. The two main ways to eliminate the dust is to vacuum as the dust is being created or spray water to keep it from going into the air. Both can be accomplished with add-on attachments to power tools or with the use of specific tool models. You can use a jackhammer with a water delivery system, for example. Or you can use a shroud and dust collection system on a handheld drill.

What is your advice to home builders?

I’d reach out to every single subcontractor I have and alert them in an email or other written communication and ask for written confirmation that they are aware of and complying with the silica requirements. And I’d save that documentation.

Remember, if it happens on your job, you have potential liability. If I walk up to my jobsite and see a dust cloud, it’s my responsibility in supervising the worksite and the overall build to stop that contractor and notify them they need to comply before continuing their work. Not all dust clouds are necessarily silica — some alternative products are on the market like drywall mud that contain no silica. But you need to check the product’s safety data sheet (SDS) to be sure.

How prepared are home builders in the industry for this rule?

I think this is still in a really early stage in terms of implementation by builders and contractors. It’s very important to go to OSHA’s website and to use the materials from NAHB to take the necessary actions to get into compliance. The 30-day “good faith” compliance period will end soon, so builders really need to get a firm hold on this.

I also think there will be some surprises, especially among smaller builders. A guy doing 10 homes a year may not even know about this rule. I think this will catch those home builders off guard.

How have you seen builders and contractors going about meeting this rule so far? Any examples?

We worked with a cabinet installer, who actually did a lot of the legwork and research herself and did a great job. She knew she drilled and installed material into concrete, therefore creating silica dust, and went to the Table 1 instructions from OSHA’s silica rule, and opted to buy a drill with dust collection system and knew she had to use a specific filter vacuum. So that’s the ideal scenario: A contractor identifies that an aspect of the work they do causes silica dust, and they seek out a means of keeping it out of the air.

What about respirators?

That’s actually a pretty tricky aspect of all this. If you cannot keep all dust out of the air in the first place, you can use respirators to help keep the airborne silica out of your workers’ lungs and monitor the air content of your worksite for silica yourself. Under this method, your workers are also required to have medical evaluations performed on them if they wear respirators for 30 days or more in a year.

But keep in mind, if an employer chooses to use respirators, those respirators have to be used correctly. That includes being clean shaven to have a proper seal on the worker’s face, and ensuring the worker is trained, fit tested and medically cleared to use the respirator. Since it is more difficult to breathe with the device, heart and other conditions can make them dangerous to use. And again, you’re taking the risk that the worker will consistently and properly use the device, when they have a lot of other things taking their focus on the worksite.

That said, it’s important to note too that for durations of exposure lasting more than four hours per day, and depending on indoor or outdoor conditions for the worker, respirator use may be a requirement of Table 1 — even if you are using dust collection or water delivery. You really have to do your homework.

How to do you go about helping your clients with silica compliance?

We share the information I’ve mentioned here and the documentation from OSHA, and we help the client identify all the areas where silica dust can be created in their work process so that they know what to watch out for. We also have developed a checklist that home builders and remodelers can share with their subcontractors to help make them aware of the silica requirements and get their commitment that they are in compliance.

Resources

OSHA’s website has the details of the enhanced requirements that took effect Sept. 23. NAHB has a Silica in Construction Toolkit that includes helpful guidance and a set of tools and products sold by manufacturers to aid in compliance. These products and claims have not been verified by NAHB, but serve as a helpful start for home builders and contractors as a reference.

For additional information, contact Rob Matuga at 800-368-5242 x8507.

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