Navigating the concrete silica regulations: Flooring Forensics - Dec 2017

By Lew Migliore

It is estimated that about 2.3 million people in the U.S. are exposed to silica on the job. Silica, often referred to as quartz, is a common mineral composed of silicon and oxygen-the two most abundant elements in the earth’s crust. Materials like stone, rock, concrete, brick, block and mortar contain crystalline silica. The danger silica poses is due to the disturbance of materials-via cutting, grinding or drilling, for example-that contain respirable crystalline silica (RCS) particles. RCS particles are 100 times smaller than ordinary sand, and exposure to RCS dust can cause lung disease, including lung cancer.

The floor patch and leveling materials used in the flooring industry every day-whether composed of Portland cement, calcium aluminate cement or gypsum cement-all contain some amount of RCS. So, not only can RCS be found in concrete substrates that are being breached, but it’s in all the patch and leveling materials flooring contractors use, including synthetic gypsum cement, which started out as limestone and may contain silica.

The Occupational Safety and Health Association (OSHA) issued a ruling on the crystalline silica standard this year, which went into effect September 23, with employers in the construction industry given an additional 30 days to comply. Those who choose not to comply face fines of nearly $13,000, with a hefty $126,749 fine for willful or repeated violation.

OSHA’s silica rule is described in great detail in a series of procedures that employers must adopt at the work site to control and document silica exposures, just as was done with asbestos. The key here is “the procedures at the work site,” not information provided by manufacturers of the products used for flooring. Recent public relations materials from some manufacturers making claims about their products “passing” OSHA standards are incredibly misleading. The testing they performed was at their own plant, under fabricated conditions, and not in the field at the work site. This information is not only dishonest, but if a flooring contractor or installer believes it and uses it as an excuse for violation, they may find themselves in a lot of trouble.

With respect to the use of cementitious material powders-be they Portland, calcium aluminate or gypsum cement-based-the fact is that dust will become airborne once the bags are opened and workers use the products. The question is whether the person working with these products is exposed to RCS above the OSHA limits. Again-and please let this sink in-there is no way a manufacturer of these products can say that the customers using them will not be exposed to some RCS. Jobsite conditions and user procedures must be taken into consideration. Any manufacturer that makes claims that its products will not expose workers to RCS can really only make such claims based on one thing: that its products are completely free of RCS.

What OSHA wants via its ruling is to make sure that workers are not exposed to unsafe levels of dust that may contain RCS. By OSHA’s own reporting, the vast majority of high levels of RCS comes from disturbing existing articles that contain RCS, such as concrete, brick and stone. Grinding, cutting, scarifying and shot blasting are examples of ways that RCS can become airborne. Flooring industry workers are exposed to these sorts of actions every day, especially in commercial settings where concrete substrate work of some kind is always underway.

I believe that the OSHA ruling is a good thing. It is simply not sound thinking to claim that the inhalation of dust caused by working with existing concrete or repair products could not pose a health hazard. The flooring industry is already suffering from lack of good installers; let’s not kill those we do have on the job site! And it’s also worthwhile to remember that many flooring contractors have gotten into the concrete polishing and staining business over the past few years-which means more potential exposure to RCS.

I don’t believe it was OSHA’s intent to make life difficult for the flooring and construction industry. I’m of the opinion that the government should not regulate our lives, but in the case of keeping workers safe and healthy, I’m all for it. Sure, a contractor or installer will have to spend money to invest in protective gear for their workers, but, ultimately, their worker will be safe and so will they.

If questions arise about compliance, OSHA is willing to help. Small business employers can contact OSHA’s free and confidential on-site consultation program to determine whether there are hazards at their worksites and then work with OSHA on correcting any identified hazards. On-site consultation services are separate from enforcement activities and do not result in penalties or citations.

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