July 2, 2013 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 0Comment

Employers in British Columbia’s (BC) construction industry recognized that workers were exposed to respirable silica and other rock dust.  What they needed was a standard from the province’s  worker safety regulatory body on how to identify and control the hazard.  The BC Construction Association, which represents 2,500 companies and the Council of Construction Associations (COCA) formally requested a standard on silica to fill the regulatory gap. In BC, worker safety regulations are proposed and adopted through their Workers’ Compensation Board, part of WorkSafeBC.  Earlier this month, the proposed a rule addressing silica was issued.

As reported in the Vancouver Sun, COCA president Grant McMillan said:

“Silica dust has been a bit of a sleeper, but it’s still a real safety concern from the point of view of lung disease.  I think WorkSafe is being wise in looking at silica dust and ensuring there are safe work practices. In construction, as elsewhere, if people don’t take the proper precautions, then they definitely have an increased risk of developing lung disease.”

Wow!  Hard to imagine our large construction trade associations urging any kind of new OSHA regulation.  Industry groups like the Associated General Contractors and Associated Builders & Contractors, Inc., continue to insist the current OSHA standard for silica is adequate.   In British Columbia, their worker safety rules on silica are already stiffer than federal OSHA’s.  WorkSafeBC’s occupational exposure limit for silica is 0.025 mg/m3 (TWA 8 hours) compared to OSHA’s current PEL of 0.1 mg/m3.   Why then did COCA request a rule on silica?
COCA’s Grant McMillan told me that his organization’s goal is rectifying problems.  An exposure limit for silica alone is not adequate.  The proposed rule mandates “dust reduction systems,” such as wet methods for cutting or drilling, local exhaust ventilation or enclosures to capture the dust.  COCA’s  2,500 members want to protect their workers from silica dust and these kinds of controls are already being used.  But not all of the contractors in BC—as many as 44,000—-may not be as diligent about using dust controls.  McMillan told me it’s about having a level playing field throughout the province’s construction industry.

The WorkSafeBC proposal lays out a justification for a silica rule that is comparable to the situation here in the States:

“In BC workplaces, there is more exposure to silica than there is to asbestos or lead.  Employer and worker responsibilities with respect to asbestos and lead are contained in Part 6 of the OHSR, and there are no similar provisions for silica. It has been estimated by CAREX Canada that there are approximately 48,000 workers in BC exposed to crystalline silica per year.”

“It is believed that silica exposure in BC workplaces are under-reported (particularly the cancers) and misdiagnosed. This is due to the difficulty in relating some cancers to a particular cause and to the presence of contributing factors (e.g., smoking in the construction industry). In addition, it is believed that many physicians do not take into account a patient’s occupational history, or the relationship to early work exposures may be obscure, when they treat a cancer patient.”

Can someone point me to the U.S. equivalent of an association of high-road construction companies advocating for an OSHA silica rule?  I wonder if the Obama Administration would stop dragging its feet on a silica proposal for U.S. workers if it heard from such a group.

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