Construction safety and silica dust – where’s the disconnect?

Recently I had a conversation with a construction safety expert who has been in the business for a number of years. He came up through the ranks working for a general contractor and moved into the safety side of the business a couple of decades ago. He definitely knows his way around a construction site and can give tailgates on many topics and has done a lot for his firm’s overall safety record. But when we started to chat about measuring exposure to airborne contaminates such as lead paint or silica dust he was definitely out of his comfort zone. Unfortunately, I suspect he’s not alone.

Over two million workers are exposed to silica dust on the job every year. Silica dust exposure can result in a respiratory disease called silicosis which is a progressive and potentially fatal disease.  Silica dust is also associated with lung cancer and tuberculosis.

OSHA has published a guidance document (“Controlling Silica Exposures in Construction”, Publication 3362-04 2009) which looks at silica exposure task by task, evaluating construction activities such as using masonry saws, tuckpointing, drilling, and drywall installation.  OSHA also has a lot of great information on their website on how to minimize exposure to silica dust in the work place using engineering controls such as wet cutting and vacuum dust collection systems. Using guidance document and the OSHA website most construction safety managers can put together the basics of a good silica dust program.    Conducting the personal monitoring to determine your workers exposure is best left to an industrial hygienist working under the supervision of a Certified Industrial Hygienist.  Industrial hygiene consulting firms have the proper equipment, relationships with laboratories and can advise the Safety Manager on how to comply with all aspects of the silica dust regulations.

Eric Hartman, CIH, Sr. Project Manager – Seattle, Washington

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