Silica Safety

Words: MASONRY Magazine  

In the masonry industry, contractors and laborers come into contact with a variety of chemicals, machines, and equipment on a daily basis whose potential danger ranges from somewhat harmful to certainly lethal. However, with so many precautions to keep in mind while on the jobsite, it’s easy to overlook the more remote possibility of potential future damage from chemical exposure. As masons go about their days grinding, cornering stone and cutting brick and block, it’s important to remember OSHA’s respirable silica dust regulations and keep the steps that can be taken to ensure compliance in mind.  

Silica dust, chemical formula SiO₂ is a byproduct of working with quartz, which occurs naturally in almost any rock, sand, soil, brick, or concrete products commonly used in a variety of capacities throughout the construction industry. OSHA first began regulating silica dust exposure on the jobsite in 1971, and has recently updated the silica rule for construction and masonry workers- to a mixed reception from the industry.  

A year after the release of the updated rule, Zach Everett, Corporate Safety Director for Brazos Masonry, says mason contractors’ feelings towards the rule are “all over the map. I think there’s some folks like us that almost think it’s a good thing, there’s other folks that put up with it and they’re just looking to comply, and then, there’s a whole lot of companies out there that they haven’t done anything.”  

Thankfully, today’s masonry industry is full of individuals and companies devoted to keeping workers in compliance and safe from potential industry-related hazards. Paul Guth, for example. President and founding member of iQ Power Tools, Guth is a former mason contractor who has devoted the last 15 years developing tools and plans to help keep others in the industry safer and better protected from concerns like respirable silica dust. 

Guth breaks down the approach that goes through with every client in an effort to identify the different aspects of protection from potential hazards like respirable silica dust. “We always tell people, first, know what the hazard is. Understand that silica dust is dangerous, and why you need to protect yourself,” he says.  

For masons, this means understanding the extent of the OSHA regulations, the applications, the terminology, and clarifying any aspects of Table 1 and the regulation itself to ease the transition of implementation. Those lacking in comprehension can be left otherwise unaware of the potential risks of respirable silica dust and the recommended means to mitigate its effects.  

OSHA’s updated regulations on respirable silica dust structure a framework to reduce worker exposure via engineered and improved work practice controls that are laid out in three difference compliance options. Table 1, one such option, lists 18 common tasks likely to produce high amounts of silica dust, and matches each task with specific controls and respirator requirements for optimum protection.  

For example, according to OSHA’s Table 1, when using a stationary masonry saw, it is recommended that the saw being used is “equipped with an integrated water delivery system that continuously feeds water to the blade,” and that the tool is operated and maintained, “in accordance with manufacturer’s instructions to minimize dust emissions.”  

If these two principles are observed, then operators are in compliance with the regulations, and require no minimum assigned protection factors (APF) or respirator use of any kind, regardless of time spent working with the material. Conversely, a handheld power saw (of any blade diameter) lists the same recommendations, but the nature of the dust produced requires that if the saw is being used indoors for any period of time, or outdoors in excess of four hours, APF and respirator use are required.  

Ultimately, OSHA’s rule has been set in the hopes that “employers who follow these requirements fully and completely will not have to do air monitoring and will be assumed to be below the permissible exposure limit,” and therefore in compliance with the regulation. Adds Everett, “Some people focus on Table 1 and on trying to be compliant to Table 1.  But, if a company does their own monitoring data, then they can approve (if the data bears it out) that they are under the permissible exposure level, and then they can do whatever they want to do.” This means that the rule actually affords the flexibility to “do any process they want to, even if it’s not in Table 1, so long as the monitoring is below the permissible exposure limit,” he concludes.  

Guth agree wholeheartedly that it is of the utmost important to know the standard. “They really have to spend the time and look at the regulation, and look at the different steps and what they can do to understand the standard, and then try to change their business and work practices in order to comply with the standard and protect their people,” he says. This means understanding the OSHA PEL, or ‘Permissible Exposure Limit’ Everett references, which is the legal limit established by OSHA for worker exposure to silica.  
 

Once mason contractors understand the OSHA PEL requirements, they may need to assess what, if anything, they will need to enforce, change, or implement in order to be in compliance with the standard. Guth strongly echoes Everett’s recommendation to “self-monitor, which means that they need to engage with a company or a laboratory that can do the air sampling for them for these different work practices, and then they can really understand what their exposure is.”  

By examining current worksite conditions through precise independent third-party testing, contractors can get an accurate and objective perspective on the actual real-time safety of their employees, giving them the information they need to make adjustments in accordance with the results. Without this information, contractors are unprepared to properly make informed decisions regarding their employees’ safety, unnecessarily placing them at risk for potential dangers like respirable silica dust exposure.  

The final point of discussion Guth works through with every client is knowing “what are your options to deal with it. Those can be as simple as engineered controls to deal with the hazards.” A highly recommended suggestion and means of accomplishing this goal, offers Everett, is to “start reaching out to other people that are experts so they can help you and give you the tools you need to be compliant,” and that mason contractors “utilize all third party sources of information.” 

It is through this dedication to compliance with and understanding the rule that will allow contractors to “build your business around that gained knowledge, and then you can know that you’re proceeding in a good way that’s protecting your people,” advises Guth. He acknowledges that this can be a difficult transition, but “the safety issue is such a big hazard, especially for young people just coming into the trades, that if we can help them understand these things there’s a whole generation of people out there we can safeguard.”  

Guth often refers to the incoming generation of mason contractors, and the importance of protecting them from the potential health conditions affecting fellow industry members from his generation when the need for protection from hazards like silica dust was not as well studied or understood. In an effort to combat this potentially health-ravaging condition from needlessly claiming any more lives, he has enacted an approach that will hopefully help many people for years to come.  

In Guth’s opinion, the solutions have been put in place to combat this have been effective because, “the education really has been stepped up in the industry, and also other manufacturers like ourselves and others have stepped in and tried to educate people as well so that they really understand what the hazards are…the biggest thing is education and really learning how to understand what the regulation is and then how we can run our businesses and what options are available to us.”  

In addition to performing outreach towards young people regarding of the risks of respirable silica dust, training classes of all types have been a positive tool to reach out to workers and provide educational information in a simple and engaging format. There are now “whole training classes to help certify people to manage the respirable silica or the respiratory program,” which have been strongly supported by many contractors and associations representing industry members. “Many have accepted those classes and are putting their people individually through these classes to get them certified,” Guth explains, which he feels strongly is the industry moving in a positive direction towards adopting and complying with the rule.  

The final prong of Guth’s approach to tackling silicosis in the masonry industry is protection.  There are several options to physically reduce and prevent dust generation, including examining the work practice itself, implementing physical protective barriers or engineered controls, and donning a dust mask when appropriate.  

The first thing contractors, and especially competent people on the jobsite should do if question if the work practice can be modified so that it doesn’t generate dust. If the answer is no, or if respirable dust will be produced regardless, the best thing Guth recommends to do is simply capture the dust from the source as it’s being generated and produced. This is called an engineered control, and usually, that’s involving some type of vacuum or a water suppression and according to Guth’s experience, those are typically the two most effective ways to capture the dust.  

A good example of water integrated dust suppression that has been particularly successful, in Everett’s experience, is “always running clean water through the tools, because you don’t have that slurry build up then.” On the jobsite, with “a lot of the tools like the saws, you have a pan and there’s a pump down in the pan of the saw, so all the sludge and slurry gets trapped and then as a result you’re reusing the same slurry to wet cut.” His simple and inexpensive solution that will ensure compliance? “If you run clean water through it, your tools will last longer, you don’t have the slurry buildup and your material stays cleaner.” 

Tools with integrated dust collection mechanisms are iQ Power Tools specialty and another excellent form of reducing respirable dust exposure. Using devices that are seamlessly incorporated with a vacuum ensures that “when you turn them on, and you are cutting or grinding, you go about your work practice as you normally would but the dust is being captured. That way, you’re not adding some shroud, or plugging in a hose, or have all these other apparatus around that you need to make sure you don’t forget any of the parts and pieces to make it work.”  

Another potential means of complying with the silica rule by properly observing dust suppression protocols is to substitute and replace older tools with newer modes, or completely different tools entirely. Everett recounts that at Brazos, “we got away from grinders and we went to a 9-inch battery powered instead of electrical cut off saw.” The updated silica standard may have been the catalyst that pushed Everett and his team to start phasing out the grinders and replacing them with the smaller saw. They quickly found that “the guys loved them and it was just a really positive move and it made us more productive, safer, and to have an all-around a good transition.” 

Caution is key when working around silica dust on a jobsite, and proper training courses and diligent reference to OSHA’s Table 1 at the fingertips of the masonry industry are important keys to ensuring compliance with the Respirable Silica Rule. Employee safety is of the utmost importance, and by remaining knowledgeable and up-to-date on the regulation, as well as empowering employees with both the information and appropriate equipment they need, remaining compliant can be relatively straightforward.  

While respirable silica dust has been and remains an issue for the masonry industry, it is a potential hazard that unlikely to disappear overnight. Additional efforts to increase education and awareness on the topic by the likes of Paul Guth and Zach Everett, as well as the efforts of competent people on the jobsite, are collectively helping to produce a new generation of masons that are well-prepared to make informed decisions regarding their health and safety on the job.  

Small Sidebar at the end  

iQ Power Tools has recently partnered with the American Lung Association to expand its outreach and devote substantially more resources and influence to combating this issue. “We’ve actually teamed up…to take that message to as many people as possible because, for many years, the American Lung Association has really focused on lung disease in general, but silica and silicosis is one of those diseases that we see within the construction industry, so we saw it as a good partnership.” 

A mutually beneficial relationship, this will open doors on both sides for the dangers of silica dust to be more openly shared as discussed as a national public health issue, rather than a danger facing a small subset of the working population. Explains Paul, “we as a manufacturer and as an ex-masonry contractor, we’re taking our message to the construction industry and we’re teaming up with the American Lung Association to do the same. There’s a whole market out there of people that are exposed to silica dust on a daily basis that are potentially damaging their lungs, and so getting the American Lung Association involved with those communities, we’re kind of a conduit to take that message to the American Lung Association and to the masonry and construction industry to kind of get their name behind it so that everybody takes it seriously.” There’s even a solid media campaign already in the works, including videos specifically regarding silicosis and mitigating exposure, which have been shown to be extremely effective in raising awareness.