Hardscaping is a common service landscaping companies offer but it also poses various health hazards, including silicosis.
Silicosis is a lung disease that is caused by breathing in tiny bits of silica. The silica, which is part sand, rock and mineral ores, causes scarring in the lungs as it is breathed in over time and harms a person’s ability to breathe.
Yet recent regulations have been implemented to help mitigate this threat.
On March 25, 2016, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) published a final rule on the new permissible exposure limits (PEL) for respirable crystalline silica. The previous limits were set in 1971 and had not been updated since then.
OSHA explains that it proposed this new rule when evidence showed that the current PELs did not adequately protect workers’ health.
Enforcement of these standards were delayed in order to provide training to compliance officers and conduct outreach to the regulated community, but the enforcement became effective to all industries on June 23, 2018.
Since then, the new permissible limit of silica dust is 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air over an eight-hour shift.
“We cannot say we’ve seen a reduction of dust, but we have seen a heightened level of awareness about silica, especially on the part of the laborers and contractors,” says Paul Guth, president and co-founder of iQ Power Tools. “People are thinking more about dangerous exposure levels and taking action.”
While there has been an increase in awareness, the vast majority still do not understand the silica threat, which is why iQ Power Tools has partnered with the American Lung Association to launch its educational initiative, “Understanding Silicosis.”
“If the majority of contractors understood that every time silica dust is breathed into their lungs, it stays, turns to scar tissue and will then diminish their lung capacity, they would change the way they work,” Guth says.
Guth says he doesn’t believe the average landscaper is following the new silica regulations, despite the increased awareness.
“Our challenge is to build on that awareness and create a positive impact on workers’ safety,” Guth says. “We have partnered with the American Lung Association to do just that. By partnering with the ALA, we can spread the message about silica and continue to grow the awareness exponentially. Once the industry truly understands the regulation and the danger of silica inhalation, there will be a huge increase in the number of compliant contractors.”
For those concerned about becoming less productive by following this standard, Guth argues that it isn’t so.
“If the landscaper can invest in correct tools and adapt to new techniques that comply with the updated silica regulation, then they will increase their productivity by creating a cleaner jobsite and a happier, healthier crew,” he says.
OSHA predicts that annual costs for the average workplace to be covered by the rule would cost about $1,242, while the annual cost to a firm with fewer than twenty employees would be less, averaging about $550. Meanwhile, the average net benefits from the new regulation will be “about $2.8 to $4.7 billion annually over the next 60 years.”
Guth says that the new regulations have also challenged manufacturers to step up, and they have started making more products that provide dust containment for contractors.
“It is always a challenge when an industry change forces an individual to change habits and work practices,” he says. “However, there are tools and resources available to landscapers to mitigate dust exposure. They will have to learn themselves, plus teach and train their crews these new habits.”
Aside from merely limiting worker exposure, the new standard also requires employers to have a written exposure control plan, designate a competent individual to execute said plan, restrict housekeeping practices that expose workers to silica when there are other options, offer medical exams, train workers to reduce their silica exposure and keep records of workers’ silica exposure and medical exams.
“The main issue still is that the regulation is not fully understood,” Guth says. “It is not just buying a new tool and being done. While that is a large part of becoming compliant, it is not all that needs to be done. The regulation is a plan that must be implemented through the entire company. There needs to be a shift in company culture to embrace the regulation so that all crews are safe.”
Landscapers have the option of following the control method listed in Table 1, which doesn’t require employers to measure workers’ exposure to silica and doesn’t subject them to the PEL, or they can choose alternative exposure control methods, which requires the employer to determine the exposure levels and use dust controls when going over the PEL.
Common dust control methods include wetting or using a vacuum to collect the dust before workers can inhale it.
“Do not just let the dust fly,” Guth says. “Capture the dust at the source. There are new methods available to cut, grind or drill and capture the dust before it is released into the air. Using engineered controls, along with PPE, is important to lower your exposure.”