On June 23, 2018, construction contractors operating in the United States were required to comply with all components of an update to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA) standard for respirable crystalline silica dust.
Respirable (breathable) crystalline silica dust is the technical term for much of the airborne dust created on any construction jobsite, but it can also be found in oil and gas, manufacturing and agricultural industries.
Silica is a basic component of sand and rock and can be found on virtually every contractor's job site.
The substance is found in the construction materials themselves, namely mortar, bricks, cement or concrete tiles — almost anything made from stone-like material.
The problem comes when silica becomes airborne — and breathable. This happens when someone is cutting or chipping away at tile, brick or a slab of concrete.
This is where the risk increases. Inhaling airborne silica dust can cause a disease known as silicosis, which is irreversible and potentially deadly. What's scarier is workers may not show any symptoms at first, but the more someone is exposed, the more acute the symptoms may become. To make matters worse, inhaling silica can also cause lung cancer, even in non-smokers.
Controlling the uncontrollable
Keeping a lid on this dust while working indoors, such as during restoration or masonry work, requires proper ventilation, vacuums and appropriate respirators.
But for contractors working outdoors, the best defense is a proactive offense — that means reducing the volume of dust you create.
OSHA has specified a list of engineering controls and work practices that, when properly implemented, greatly reduce the amount of breathable silica dust and alleviate the need for the contractor to enact some of the more onerous exposure controls outlined in the standard.
This list of engineering controls is referred to as "Table 1."
It lists eighteen common construction tasks known to produce large amounts of crystalline silica dust. For each task, Table 1 specifies methods a contractor can take to protect workers.
For a list of Table 1 controls and practices, visit the OSHA website here.
According to the standard, "Employers who fully and properly implement the engineering controls, work practices, and respiratory protection specified for a task on Table 1 are not required to measure respirable crystalline silica exposures to verify that levels are at or below the permissible exposure limit (PEL) for workers engaged in the Table 1 task."
Keeping the dust down
Table 1 controls are an excellent way to limit a particular worker's silica dust exposure, but more action should be taken to protect people working around the entire jobsite — picture someone removing mortar with a handheld grinder wearing a properly specified dust mask.
But what about clean up? Or mixing?
This is why many responsible contractors are looking to go beyond the minimum actions in the standard and opting to reduce dust throughout their operations.
One way they are doing that is by sourcing modern, low-dust materials in place of older technology.
And if you want the most low-dust bang for your buck, mortar is a good place to start.
"Our main goal in developing our low dust products was to help contractors alleviate the issue of dust," says Jay Patel, Industry Sector Manager, Marketing at BASF in Minneapolis, MN.
Patel is referring to BASF's MasterEmaco® T 1060DR and MasterEmaco® T 1061DR low-dust repair mortars, currently the only engineered low-dust options for repair mortars. Other options exist, but those consist of an additive spread on top of the mortar, resulting in an inconsistent mix and high-dust "hot spots" that send silica clouds throughout your worksite.
Patel says MasterEmaco repair mortars are different.
"What we've been able to do is tie the additive as part of the backbone of the formula. It's integrated into the formula itself, so it's very homogeneous," he says.
"The MasterEmaco line is a well-recognized name in restoration, so all the other features and benefits that come from our repair mortar are inherent in this product, but with the added benefit of it being low dust, and a couple of other benefits as well."
According to Patel, BASF's low-dust mortar is an enhancement of its standard product — a deliberate consequence of the engineering that went into the mortar.
"It's got some extra bells and whistles to it while maintaining the previous features of the existing product," says Patel, who added that every little bit counts when it comes to silica dust.
"Sometimes, the small daily tasks contribute to the nuisance of dust. In our perspective, every single part of being able to reduce dust is important to our customers. BASF's goal is to be a reliable partner for the industry to make sure jobsites are safer for contractors."
For contractors to ensure every jobsite is compliant with OSHA's updated silica standard, a combination of Table 1 controls along with sourcing responsible, low-dust materials is the best way to look like an expert to the local inspector and look like a hero to workers.
Here's a link to download OSHA's Small Entity Compliance Guide for the Respirable Crystalline Silica Standard for Construction. This downloadable .PDF is 95 pages long and has the answer to any question you might ask about the updates to the silica dust standard.