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December 1, 2005 8:16 AM CST

The work of the Construction Industry Silica Task Force

Protecting the health of workers and securing the future of mason contractors


Over the last few days, I've been inundated with emails from various people commenting on or inquiring about the status of the work of the Silica Task Force. So I decided it was time to either bring everyone up to date or buy a new computer since mine was on the verge of crashing from information overload! Naturally I chose the (less expensive and more prudent) option to bring everyone up to speed.

By now I hope all of our readers are aware of the work that MCAA has been doing over the last two years as the head of the Construction Industry Silica Task Force. In addition to collecting data and drafting a task-based proposal to limit employee exposures to respirable crystalline silica, we have had numerous discussions with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) about collaborating with them on further data collection efforts and research on engineering controls. While we believe our Task Force document is very sound, more work remains to be done to collect data for various tasks for which we have absolutely no data. More importantly, with the help of NIOSH and those in the equipment industry, we should be able to perform a significant amount of testing on engineering controls for tasks such as tuck pointing where we know exposures are difficult to control. This testing could lead to some new, more sophisticated engineering designs and controls that will be more effective and, hopefully, less cumbersome for employees to wear for their protection. This type of research and data collection is absolutely critical to the whole premise of the Task Force document: that for each task performed in construction, we know what the exposure limits are and at what point controls - engineering, administrative and personal protective equipment (PPE) - must be applied in order to minimize the generation of dust and reduce employee exposures. In our view, this task-based approach is the most effective means --- technologically and economically - for achieving that goal. And it is an approach that we have the support of NIOSH on, support which will be even more critical if we are going to convince OSHA that it should be the basis for any future standard on silica the agency develops.

And speaking of an OSHA standard, readers should be aware that OSHA just published its semi-annual regulatory agenda on Monday, October 31. It is moving forward with a proposed rule on silica and also makes mention of the fact that the Building Trades division of AFL-CIO has a proposal as does the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM). Both proposals contain requirements for exposure monitoring and medical surveillance. To say the least, the inclusion of exposure monitoring and medical surveillance in any standard would be cost-prohibitive. The ASTM standard is particularly problematic because those standards are developed as "national consensus" standards and, under the law, OSHA is required to adopt the provisions of "national consensus" standards or indicate through their own rulemaking why the approach the agency is taking is more effective in protecting the health and safety of the workers against exposures to respirable crystalline silica. And ASTM doesn't have to go out and collect data to justify their recommendations. So we've got our work cut out for us to make some significant changes in this ASTM proposal in an effort to ensure that it doesn't undermine all the hard work and financial commitment we have invested in our own Task Force document.

The next most integral part of this whole puzzle is the OSHA Risk Assessment. The Risk Assessment is literally the barometer, if you will, for what the agency will ultimately decide to propose as a comprehensive standard for addressing workplace exposures to respirable crystalline silica. The Risk Assessment is simply this: a group of scientific studies which have been reviewed by OSHA and found to contain significant evidence that the health effects of silica warrant further review. These studies are compiled and presented to an independent contractor for peer review and analysis. It is expected that this peer review/risk assessment process will be completed in April of 2006. Thanks to the hard work of our Director of Government Affairs, Marian Marshall, OSHA will, for the VERY first time, release this risk assessment for public comment. The Silica Task Force will undertake an in-depth analysis of this document to poke holes in its arguments and, more critically, determine whether or not, based on this risk assessment, adjustments in our Task Force document may be necessary.

In the meantime, we have lots of work to do with NIOSH on data collection and testing of engineering controls. But I think at this stage of the game, all the pieces seem to be coming together very well and we are on course to present an excellent set of recommendations to OSHA for limiting occupational exposures to respirable crystalline silica on construction jobsites. This is an enormous undertaking, but one which will prove the most effective in protecting the health of our workers while preserving the integrity of an industry we are all so proud to be part of.

About the Author

G. Alan Griffin, President of Griffin Contractors, Inc., has severals years experience in the masonry industry. He is a past president of the Mason Contractors Association of America and the North Carolina Masonry Contractors Association. Griffin grew up working in the masonry business founded in 1957 by his father and grandfather, and has since taken over the family business. Griffin was award the C. DeWitt Brown Leadman Award for exemplary leadership in advancing the masonry industry in 2007.


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