January 6, 2004 7:30 AM CST
OSHA's Silica Exposure Standard
Marian J. Marshall
If you didn't pay attention to last month's "Government Affairs" article in Masonry about OSHA's draft proposed standard on silica exposure, now's the time to do so. Why is this so important? This proposed standard is so broad and invasive you could be forced out of business.
Alarming? Yes ? but true.
The MCAA executive board may have hired a full-time person in Washington due to concerns about ergonomics, but I can assure you that this silica exposure standard will have far graver consequences.
The draft rule would apply to "respirable silica" ? one of the most common elements in the earth's crust ? and establish a new permissible exposure limit (PEL) based on an unspecified sampling method.
For "specified high-risk operations" (coring, drilling, sawing, blasting), this rule would offer the employer a choice between exposure monitoring or complying with specified work practices and engineering controls, such as wet saws, shrouds, HEPA filters, etc., to meet the PEL. HEPA-equipped vacuums range in price from $2,700 to $6,600, and that's just a fraction of the costs associated with retrofits of equipment recommended under this standard.
Engineering controls make perfect sense ? they've been proven effective in limiting silica exposure. But the fact remains that you'd have no way of knowing whether or not you were meeting the PEL without monitoring and testing, all of which, by our estimates, would cost you $350 per worker per day, factoring in equipment, oversight, lab costs and lost productivity.
OSHA would require employers to have a competent person on-site all day to: identify and evaluate silica hazards; ensure engineering controls and work practices were maintained and effective; establish regulated areas to limit silica exposure and have the knowledge to know when corrective measures were required and the authority to implement them.
In addition to exposure monitoring, OSHA would require medical screening. Before a prospective employee could start work, you'd have to pay several hundred dollars for them to have a physical. Post-termination health screening might also be required.
Worse still, the standard has a medical removal protection provision requiring employers to extend full-pay, seniority and benefits to any employee who is found to have a significant enough level of silica exposure that they must stay off work or be reassigned. While OSHA claims medical removal may last only six to 18 months, we believe this estimate to be unrealistic. Unfortunately, once a person has contracted silicosis, it doesn't go away.
OSHA estimates that the medical management provisions of their standard would only consume 10-12% of your annual profits. MCAA believes they are off by a factor of at least two.
Let's make one thing perfectly clear: The members of MCAA have no greater interest than the health and safety of their workers. But this standard is overkill. OSHA should offer education, outreach, research and compliance assistance to enforce the existing standard. The number of silica exposure cases has declined from 1800 in 1968 to 187 in 2001, and the incidence rates are still declining. The means here simply don't justify the end.
MCAA is fighting this proposed standard on all fronts. Thus far we have:
Formed a silica coalition with the Associated General Contractors (AGC), Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) and the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB).
Submitted extensive comments to OSHA on the rule.
Met with members of Congress and Capitol Hill staff.
Proposed a meeting with the Office of Management and Budget to review economic implications.
Proposed a meeting with House Education and Work Force Committee (with oversight of OSHA) and OSHA Assistant Secretary, John Henshaw.
The construction industry is the one segment of the U.S. economy with significant growth, which is forecasted to continue in the coming years. We must persuade this Administration that their proposed silica policy is likely to set that potential for growth on its ear.
We won't know until sometime early this year what OSHA's final silica exposure standard will be, but MCAA will be doing all it can in the meantime to fight for a policy that won't put our industry on the endangered species list.
About the Author
Marian J. Marshall was the Director of Government Affairs for the Mason Contractors Association of America.
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