Contractors and the OSHA Respirable Silica Rule

Words: Jerry Painter
Photos: kozmoat98, rappensuncle, Bruce Starrenburg

It has been over 2 years since MCAA began providing training for its members and other members of the construction industry in dealing with all the changes OSHA made on managing Respirable Crystalline Silica or RCS. For the most part, the masonry industry was doing an OK effort in managing the dust created on the jobsite. We were using water and ventilation in our material cutting processes and even making sure our employees that were exposed to the dust wore a “dust mask”. Most contractors including some very large contractors did not understand the ramifications of the existing requirements.

Many contractors that worked for the major construction managers or general contractors in there are were doing a better job of dust mitigation on industrial and government projects. Once OSHA noticed the construction industry it was reviewing and intending to modify the rules dealing with RCS the seriousness of the issue became evident. MCAA and other construction industry groups got a seat at the table and were able participate and impact some of the changes. 

Understanding the Rule    

The work to change the requirements for RCS began around 2003. NIOSH had published a Hazard Review in 2002 called Health Effects of Occupational Exposure to Respirable Crystalline Silica. It separated silica from other gases, vapors and particles. In this document NIOSH stated; “Until improved sampling and analytical methods are developed for respirable crystalline silica, NIOSH will continue to recommend an exposure limit of 0.05 mg/m3 to reduce the risk of developing to reduce the risk of developing silicosis, lung cancer and other adverse health effects.” 

They went on to recommend the rest of the outline of the current RCS Rule. Because of federal politics, budget issues and other reasons the work on the rule didn’t continue until in earnest until about 2015. The current rule follows the format laid out in the NIOSH document. One change they did make was to change the AL and PEL from milligrams to micrograms but everything else generally stayed true to their form. But the single major change that was different was adding Compliance Table 1. This took most of the assessment testing out of the mix which, while it does not encompass all masonry tasks, saves a great deal of time and expense. 

The rule in its most simplistic form is that employers must reduce the employee exposure to RCS by modifying work practices and/or engineering. They must keep a record of everything they do and provide medical assessment to insure their RCS Plan is working. The lack of clarity is greatly improved by the use of training programs or material provided by groups such as MCAA, local safety councils, safety resource companies and equipment manufacturers. The rule brings requirements from CFR 29 Part 1920 and 1926 together in one resource. OSHA has several things available to help. One is the Small Entity Compliance Guide for Respirable Crystalline Silica for Construction. This and the questions that were submitted to OSHA last year are available at www.osha.gov. The FAQs are also available on the MCAA website. 

Are Contractors using Table 1? 

Compliance Table 1 is unlike anything OSHA has previously done. With Table 1 OSHA has provided a list of tasks and the equipment to accomplish the task and paired it with equipment and work practice control methods along with the required respiratory protection. This option removes a lot of headaches for the employers. It really appears that employers have accepted Table 1 completely. Everyone I have talked to since the implementation of the rule in late 2018 is using Table 1 as their main means of compliance. Some employers said they have made changes in their work practices to meet the requirements of Table 1. Nothing has been very dramatic. There are contractors who use vacuum systems with masonry saws instead of wet cutting. Most just switched until they could get an assessment on using the vacuum system. Everyone is aware they can have a risk assessment done to determine the level of exposure and work outside of Table 1.  

Mixing mortar is not in Table1. It would be of great benefit if they had added it while they had the RCS Plan open during review. They imply that there are too many variables in mixing mortar for them to include that task in Table 1. During the past 2 years I have not found anyone that had an exposure assessment done on their mortar man that has exceeded the Action Level (AL). Part of which may be because most people wearing a collector will modify the work practices without even thinking about it. 

Have Contractors Accepted the Inevitable? 

Contractors who understand the need and responsibility, have accepted this Rule and are working hard to comply. The general attitude is much as discussed in 2017. Large contractors will lead the way because most of them are practicing most of it already. The middle of the group will moan and groan but will step up and commit to make it work. It is the small employers that may not participate with large numbers.  

The large employees will accept it as a change in procedure and move on. These folks have full time safety directors and human resource departments and because of their size and types of projects they have already been doing the training, work practices, engineering, and use of respirators and fit testing. The greatest changes for them has been to add in record keeping and medical surveillance. But this group still understands the importance of the entire company accepting and buying into this NEW rule. From what I have been able to surmise they have been successful from the ownership on down. 

The largest group of employers/contractors are the smaller folks. These contractors employ 10-12 people. They may provide material but most likely do not. The masons and tenders could be relatives. They are typically a close knit group, may or may not be have insurance and typically learn from their mistakes. If you ask them if they have a prework meeting to discuss what work is being done that day, do warmup exercises or point out safety hazards they will face that day they will probably ask you where your spaceship crash landed. These small contractors will never have a visit be an OSHA field representative. There is very little citation money to be gained at this level.

A contractor will simply shut down their business and start another. This group works mainly on residential and small commercial projects. The contractors they work for believing that as long as every trade is subcontracted their liability is very small. There is very little time and money spent on safety equipment and/or training. About the most they have is safety glasses on a dust mask and this is close-knit because they have seen others use these things when they occasionally work for a large contractor. 

People also believe that there is less likely that very many illnesses will arise from this because the contractors are small. This is as far from the truth as you can get. Because most of these employees are not covered by workers’ compensation insurance and they haven’t been trained to know all the other illnesses associated to RCS, they do not know that this level of construction has the highest rate of incidents than any. Since silicosis and the other related illness are often a long time coming they may not be recorded as caused by RCS. Illnesses and deaths happen but we just don’t know it. 

The last group is the one that has to work the hardest. These are the masonry contractors that really try to do what is right. This group is caught in the middle. They are the ones that are always the most vocal against change of any type. They are already doing everything they can to be safe, productive and provide quality masonry. Now here comes another safety issue that, at first look, was perceived be very difficult if not near impossible for them to deal with. But what I have found is that this group of masonry contractors have got on board and bought in to this change.

The thing that has motivated them the most is that they now realize how far reaching silicosis and the other associated illnesses really are. Understanding the impact of these illnesses has had a serious impact on most all contractors. They have found that silicosis could touch their employees as well as their own families. Now I know that most of these contractors are also meeting the requirements of the construction managers and general contractors the sign agreements with but when it becomes personalized by meeting someone with diagnosed silicosis or realizing that someone has died from second hand RCS the message becomes serious. 

As a contractor from told me, these changes are not that difficult if your company already has a culture of safety that is shared from the top of the employee chain to the bottom. Everyone has had a PCS safety plan and competent person. In place since before the compliance date in late 2017. They are all using Compliance Table 1 and having employees fit tested ahead of respirator use. Many, if not most, are doing everything they can to use good time and people management to stay away from medical surveillance and everything that it entails.  

As we move thru 2019 contractors who took training classes in2017 are now taking refresher classes such as the class that MCAA offers online. They have also been using their state associations, local safety councils and state OSHA assistance where available. In the last year and a half since implementation of this RCS Rule I found out what I always knew. That even though there is currently way of determining who is susceptible to silicosis and the it’s other associated illnesses most mason contractors are willing to do whatever it takes to continue providing quality masonry in a very safe and productive manner.