“No dust, no silica”: OSHA Silica Hearings Week #2

That simple phrase “No dust, no silica,” was the way that Donald Hulk characterized his firm’s attitude about controlling respirable crystalline silica.

Hulk is the corporate safety director for Manafort Brothers based in Plainville, CT. His presentation was one of the highlights during last week’s nearly 40 hours of testimony. The other memorable moment came from six workers who traveled from Houston, Milwaukee, Newark, and Philadelphia to speak personally about working in silica dust. Their participation interjected a dose of reality. More below about their testimony.

Manafort’s Don Hulk explained his firm’s vast expertise in all sorts of construction projects, from demolition and building construction, to infrastructure projects involving airports, roads, and tunnels. The firm’s employees perform lots of dusty tasks including concrete drilling, rock drilling, earthmoving, and using driveable masonry saws. Manafort’s attitude about dust is simple: No exposure to dust, means no exposure to silica. That is, if you institute practices to avoid creating dust and/or use equipment to protect your employees from inhaling dust, you’re going to eliminate their risk of developing a silica-related disease.

Hulk dismissed the assertions of “industry representatives” and “contractor associations” who have been raising major objections to the rule. One of those objections concerns using water to suppress the dust generated at some construction sites. Specifically, that water runoff will violate EPA regulations. Hulk’s retort included:

“Runoff is a manageable issue. Manafort’s operations achieve a balance between using sufficient water to suppress dust for the protection of workers without creating a runoff problem. Competent contractors understand the need to avoid pooling of water to prevent runoff. Much of the water is absorbed into demolition debris or it evaporates. Water evaporates more rapidly in warm weather so that the danger of creating runoff is far lower during the months in which construction activity is at its height.”

It was refreshing to hear an employer disagree with the moaning and groaning of their industry’s trade association. He added this about another objection to the rule:

“Some contractors are concerned about being put at a competitive disadvantage by contractors who fail to implement appropriate controls. An OSHA standard that requires all employers to protect their workers from silica exposure will level the playing field so that responsible contractors are not at a competitive disadvantage.”

I’m sure Don Hulk’s testimony gave some encouragement to the workers who were scheduled next for the stage. Their work experiences are quite different. I’m sure Hulk’s testimony reinforced in their minds that employers can control silica dust if they commit to doing so.

The workers’ testimony before the administrative law judge, who oversees the public hearing, was historic. It was the first time in OSHA’s 40 year history the witnesses made their presentations in Spanish. Their native countries are El Savador, Honduras, and Mexico.

Jonas Mendoza explained (translated from Spanish):

“In the construction industry contractors do not provide the workers with the basics to do the job. In many instances if you ask for protective equipment they give you a mask from $0.99 Store to shut you up.”

Santos Alemendarez described working for a firm that manufacturers kitchen fixtures, such as cabinets and granite countertops. He explained (translated from Spanish):

“The process of cutting the granite was dry and this produced an excessive amount of dust generated by cutting and processing the granite. The dust filled the entire environment in the place. I was never told by this company about the health risks caused by inhalation of silica dust. It was not until the end of January 2014 that I learned about the risk of breathing this silica dust.”

“I think that a regulation to protect workers from silica should exist because the symptoms appear after a long time. Who will be responsible in the future for any injury or harm that I will suffer?”

Juan Ruiz, a safety trainer who worked in foundries for 14 years, provided one of the many troubling statements: Conditions in the Wisconsin foundries are worse than they were a decade ago.

 Jose Granados explain the situation for those workers who know about the dangers of silica dust. They are left on their own to try to protect themselves. Granados said:

“I use a wet handkerchief over my mouth and nose.”

This week’s line-up includes the Int’l Union of Bricklayers, Masonry Contractors Association, Brick Industry Association (again), the National Association of Home Builders, Johns Manville, Tile Council of America and the Laborers Health and Safety Fund. The three weeks of public hearings on OSHA’s proposed silica regulation will conclude on Friday, April 4.