Dust can plague even the cleanest building sites, covering every surface in a layer of grime and threatening construction workers’ health. But not all dust is created equal. Some types are worse than others—and silica dust falls on the more harmful end of the spectrum.
That’s why the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has adopted new safety standards for limiting exposure to silica (silica has particles 100 times smaller than sand).
Workers can inhale silica whenever they cut, grind, crush, or drill materials such as concrete, masonry, tile and rock. OSHA estimates that more than 1.8 million construction workers are exposed to respirable crystalline silica at work, which can cause life-threatening illnesses such as lung cancer, kidney disease and silicosis, an incurable lung disease.
The first silica safety standards, adopted in 1971, allowed a permissible exposure limit of 250 micrograms per cubic meter of air, averaged over an eight-hour shift—a figure that’s based on outdated research and doesn’t adequately protect workers from the harmful effects of silica inhalation, OSHA says. The new standards lower the acceptable limit to just 50 micrograms.
Reducing silica exposure by that much is a tall order, but it’s critical for home builders who want to maintain a positive reputation in their communities. When builders demonstrate a commitment to their employees’ health and safety, home buyers are more likely to trust them to build safe, quality homes. Adhering to the latest silica control best practices is one of the many risk management measures builders need to take to preserve their reputation with potential customers.
Now that the new silica rules are in effect, here’s how home builders are addressing them:
Limiting silica exposure
Builders have a choice in how they implement the new standards. They can either follow OSHA’s guidelines for limiting exposure during each construction task involving silica, or they can measure employees’ exposure and devise their own methods for keeping it within the acceptable limit. For most builders, the easiest way to comply is to use the silica control methods outlined in OSHA’s Table 1, which matches 18 common construction tasks with effective dust control measures such as wetting down work operations or using a vacuum to collect the dust before workers can inhale it.
Investing in new equipment
To incorporate the recommended silica control methods, many contractors have had to acquire new tools, such as saws equipped with dust collectors or water delivery systems. Some have opted to replace their equipment with tools that have these systems built in, while others chose to upgrade their existing tools with attachments. Sales of tools and attachments designed to prevent silica exposure increased threefold at Bosch Power Tools over the summer as contractors prepared to meet the September compliance deadline.
Hiring additional staff
Some tasks on the job site may now require two workers rather than one. For example, “while one worker performs a silica-producing task, another may need to operate an engineering control, like vacuuming or watering down the work area to control dust,” says John Parker, vice president of project development for Elzinga & Volkers Construction Professionals. Additionally, OSHA requires contractors to develop a silica exposure control plan and appoint a staff member to implement it; offer regular medical exams to some employees; and keep records of workers’ silica exposure. Michigan builder, Orion Construction, created a new position, director of field operations, to oversee the implementation of new safety procedures.
Training employees on silica safety
Builders must also train their employees on limiting exposure when working with silica-related hazards. Those who rely on subcontractors need to ensure everyone they work with complies with the new standards. On a job site, a subcontractor using unsafe work methods can expose workers from other trades to the silica dust they generate, says Don Garvey, construction safety and health specialist at 3M. As part of its training efforts, Orion Construction requires all of its employees and contractors to watch a 60-minute video on how to manage products containing silica.
Risk management for home builders
Compliance with the new silica rule represents just one component of a builder’s overall risk management strategy. Risk management has become an umbrella term for the way companies mitigate the many different threats they face while doing business. These can include everything from natural disasters to legal tangles to punitive fines, any of which could deal a severe blow to the bottom line—or even put a company out of business.
Repeatedly violating OSHA’s silica standards, for example, could cost builders as much as $120,000 or more. A construction dispute with a disgruntled home buyer can drag on for months and cost thousands of dollars in legal fees. Builders need to proactively develop procedures and practices that help minimize these business risks and protect their profits which includes keeping on top of new building and product standards.
Risk management touches upon nearly every aspect of a business. For home builders, a robust risk management strategy should include, among other things:
- Complying with rules and regulations, including health and safety standards
- Creating a business continuity plan in case of disaster
- Purchasing general liability insurance to shield builders during construction
- Offering third-party builder home warranties with a discernible dispute resolution process as part of the mix to guard against homeowner claims
Poor risk management can inflict more than just financial costs—it can also damage a builder’s reputation. In the age of social media, when a news story or customer complaint can go viral in a matter of minutes, a safety violation or homeowner dispute can quickly tarnish a company’s public image. That’s why it’s critical to be proactive when it comes to risk management, whether it’s by offering home builder warranty services or meeting OSHA’s latest safety standards.
Of course, fully implementing the new silica control rules will take time. But as long as home builders make a concerted effort to comply, they should be able to avoid any negative repercussions as they adjust to the new silica-related safety practices.