Sometimes I wish I could just stay home in bed. But dogs need walking, and this aging body needs exercise.
The problem is what I often find along my walks: workers deep down in unprotected trenches, workers without fall protection high up on roofs, and, today workers cutting stone or concrete and inhaling clouds of deadly silica dust.
And as Confined Space readers know, I can never seem to just walk on by. In fact, I seem to have earned a reputation for confronting the employers and calling OSHA when identifying hazardous situations in my neighborhood. And I’ve even written a do-it-yourself post on how to be your own neighborhood OSHA inspector.
Clouds of Silica
As you may not be able to see in this photo on the right, there’s a worker hidden in that cloud of silica dust, cutting through stone with a handheld power saw.
Cutting stone produces clouds of respirable silica dust which can cause silicosis and lung cancer (among other diseases). The hazards of silica are well known. In 2016, OSHA issue a long-overdue silica standard that requires employers to limit worker exposures to respirable crystalline silica and to take other steps to protect workers.
And the standard made it easy for employers to protect workers. Instead of requiring employers to constantly monitor the air to see at what levels workers were being exposed, the construction standard for silica included a simple table of control methods that employers can follow.
For handheld power saws, the standard requires the use of saws equipped with integrated water delivery system that continuously feeds water to the blade. The water keeps the dust down so workers don’t inhale it. They’re easy to find at your local building supply store and aren’t terribly expensive.
There is no excuse for exposing workers to silica dust.
OSHA even provides a handy, easy-to-read fact sheet on handheld power saws.
In other words, there’s no excuse for exposing workers to silica dust.
Failure to Communicate
The workers only spoke Spanish and I speak very little Spanish. Nevertheless, I tried to explain how silica dust was muy mal for their pulmones and that they needed saws equipped with aqua to wet down the dust. There were no supervisors to be found and I didn’t call OSHA because it looked like they were about to wrap up the job.
Nevertheless, I was going to run home to print out a Spanish version of the silica fact sheet and bring it back over to the worksite. But much to my surprise and disappointment, OSHA doesn’t seem to have translated the handheld saw fact sheet into Spanish.
In fact, unless I’m missing something, the only silica fact sheet that’s translated into Spanish addresses hydraulic fracturing. Useful, but not in my neighborhood.
Seems like translating more of the construction fact sheets into Spanish would be a no-brainer, especially since most of the construction workers on small jobs (at least around here) seem to be Spanish speaking.
Happily, I have have high level connections over at OSHA. And they will be hearing from me.
Where Is OSHA?
One might wonder why these guys weren’t busted by OSHA. The problem is that this is two guys, working for maybe a couple of days, buried in a suburban town in Maryland. OSHA is an terribly understaffed, under-resourced agency. The AFL-CIO estimates that it would take over 165 years to inspect every workplace in the country just once. (Maryland is a bit better: it would take “only” 138 years to inspect every workplace once.)
And construction sites — especially small ones — may move every few days, making the task of finding them even more difficult.
One solution is to identify and educate the most vulnerable workers, and then empower them to call OSHA or call someone, like a union, a COSH group or worker rights organization who can help them. And of course, we’re assuming that even if workers are ware of the hazard, and know who to call, that they won’t be intimidated by threats of retaliation — especially if they’re undocumented.
OSHA’s Susan Harwood Training Grant program is largely focused on reaching the most vulnerable workers by training organizations who can assist them. But the program is only funded at around $11 million a year, which doesn’t go very far.
Another option, of course, would be to allow OSHA to raise its civil and criminal penalties to the point where no employer, large or small, would dare put its workers in danger. Hard to see how that’s going to happen to soon with the House and (through the filibuster) the Senate controlled by Republicans who prefer cooperation over “confrontation.”
Employers know what they’re doing. They know what they’re supposed to be doing. They just aren’t doing it. It’s as simple as that.
And what’s more confrontational than citing an employer who is breaking the law and endangering their workers? Sure “cooperation” is better — if employers want to cooperate. But I find it hard to believe in 2023 that there are many — if any — construction employers out there who don’t know about the hazards of silica and what can be done to protect workers. (Or, for that matter, that falling off a roof or getting crushed in a trench is bad for you).
They know what they’re doing. They know what they’re supposed to be doing. They just aren’t doing it. It’s as simple as that. And if it takes confrontational actions — like enforcing the law — to make the point, then OSHA should be given all the tools and resources it needs to go its job: making sure workers are able to go home — and retire — alive and healthy.