Q: I have heard that a big OSHA enforcement effort was coming where workers are exposed to airborne silica from concrete-related operations, such as grinding and cutting. Is that still on the horizon?
A: Several years ago OSHA identified a number of construction activities where workers are likely to be exposed to airborne crystalline silica, also know as quartz, which can cause silicosis when inhaled. Sandblasting is among the most severe exposure activities, but others include concrete mixing, concrete drilling, and brick and concrete block cutting and sawing.
This subject came under greater OSHA scrutiny in 2005, and early in 2006 it launched a Local Emphasis Program in Missouri to address "all aspects of potential exposures to hazards associated with concreterelated work, including silica and noise." The program includes both informational activities and programmed facility inspections of businesses that "manufacture, produce, mix, or deliver concrete or concrete products."
Meanwhile, the Concrete Sawing and Drilling Association (CSDA), whose members always have been sensitive to the issue of worker protection, saw an opportunity to join forces with OSHA to help address the problem. In March 2006, the group formed an OSHA/CSDA Alliance to focus on issues specific to cutting and drilling concrete. Over the years such alliances have been an effective way for OSHA to leverage industry's existing expertise and resources while at the same time advancing worker health and safety.
In October 2007, the OSHA/CSDA Alliance published "Reducing Silica Exposure Fact Sheet," featuring best practices for employees and employers involved in cutting concrete. Among the notable things it includes is the acknowledgement that cutting wet and engineering controls, such as ventilation, can be effective in reducing exposure to silica dust. It also says, "cutting wet is the preferred method."
The document stops short of issuing a blanket requirement for the use of respirators. Instead it explains how to determine if respirators are necessary and notes that they are recommended for any dry cutting and when cutting in enclosed areas. It also provides 11 points detailing respirator use and training for applications where they are required.
Incidentally, this is the second Best Practice developed by the OSHA/CSDA Alliance. The first was released at World of Concrete in January 2007 and covers highway work zone safety. Both are available for download at www.csda.org.
So in answer to your question, the enforcement effort has begun. Fortunately, a publication clearly detailing the industry's best practices is available to help you protect your workers and yourselves from both airborne silica and OSHA inspectors.