A partnership of AGC of California and HILTI North America held two comprehensive statewide seminars June 7 and 8 that provided nearly 150 construction industry professionals and 90 companies with important information and training about the latest regulatory measures, legal climate and potential solutions to jobsite dust control.

The seminars in Northern and Southern California are among the most recent in the ongoing series of industry training opportunities offered year round by the AGC on a host of hot button industry issues. In addition to the recent dust control seminars, AGC offerings have included everything from fall protection to developing Injury and Illness Prevention Programs (IIPP), to helping contractors meet the new General Storm Water permit requirements through classes that provide state certified Qualified SWPPP Practitioner (QSP) Training and the Qualified SWPPP Developer Training (QSD), among other topics. The educational programs demonstrate AGC’s continued leadership in the construction training arena as well as its leadership providing advocacy and industry input with myriad state and national agencies that make the regulatory decisions impacting contractors each year.

In Northern California on June 7, approximately 70 construction professionals representing 50 companies turned out for the jobsite dust control solutions seminar. They heard from a diverse panel of speakers who offered their perspective on the regulatory, legal and practical aspects of combating and preventing hazardous dust, particularly crystalline silica exposure, on construction jobsites. The seminars coincided with what is expected to be a release this year of a new standard by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) dealing with occupational exposure to silica. The proposed new crystalline silica standard was reportedly submitted to The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) by OSHA on February 14, 2011, and has been under review. It has been reported that the new standard could be one of the most significant rulemakings in OSHA's history and is expected to lower the Permissible Exposure Limits (PEL) to address the current body of research about the long term impacts of silica exposure. 

As is often the case, California currently has a more stringent regulation governing the generation of jobsite dust in this state than is in effect in much of the nation; the current California standard was put into effect September 2008 and is found in the Cal-OSHA Construction Safety Orders in section 1530.1 The Standard emphasizes dust reduction systems and processes as well as effective training programs for employees and supervisors.

The AGC seminar was kicked off with Joel Cohen, president of The COHEN Group, located in  San Mateo California, describing the science behind silica exposure and other jobsite dust issues. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), at least 1.7 million U.S. workers are exposed each year to respirable crystalline silica in a variety of industries and occupations, including construction, sandblasting, and mining. Silicosis, an irreversible but preventable disease, is the illness most closely associated with occupational exposure to the material, which also is known as silica dust. Construction workers may be exposed to hazardous dust containing silica during construction tasks, including tuck-pointing brick, grinding concrete, breaking concrete pavement with a jackhammer, and cutting block and brick. NIOSH has demonstrated that exposure can be reduced through the use of engineering controls, including the use of local exhaust ventilation to capture dust at its source and the use of water sprays to suppress dust where it is produced, among other measures. Several of the speakers at the AGC seminars illustrated programs their companies have implemented to mitigate dust exposure of their workers.

Bob Barish of Cal/OSHA Research and Standards discussed the regulatory standards currently governing dust control on construction jobsites in California. Barish emphasized that while there are some exceptions to the requirement for dust control systems, worker training is still an integral part of meeting the requirements of the regulation in this state. He pointed out how Cal/OSHA’s Consultation service is one resource for contractors to utilize to help set up a program for dealing with silica dust control on their jobsites.

Richard Finn, a trial attorney with Burnham Brown, Oakland, and group leader of the company’s Environmental law practice, offered the legal perspective on “toxic torts”. He noted that as long as employees get injured on jobsites, “general contractors will be sued,” and he discussed various ways that contractors can manage and reduce their liability and risk. Finn pointed out that while claims related to silicosis are still far from the level of asbestos related claims, the field is “in the infancy” and lawsuits are expected to only increase in future years. His advice to contractors included consulting a knowledgeable construction and environmental law attorney from the outset of setting up a program; defining and implementing solid jobsite dust control programs within each company; building solid indemnity language into all contracts with subcontractors; and making sure that a company’s record-keeping is extensive and record retention well maintained for many years after a job is completed.

Following Finn, a panel of three AGC member contractors gave their perspective on how they handle jobsite dust in their operations. Bill Jackson, Granite Construction Company, outlined the extensive program that Granite rolled out around 2004 in response to the changes they began to see in the marketplace.

“Somewhere around 2002, we started to see that asbestos plaintiff clients were running out of asbestos claims and beginning to take the same clients and use people for silica exposure. It was becoming difficult, and very expensive, for us to get the kind of liability insurance that we needed,” he said. “So we worked with our insurance company to develop a silica exposure program. We were really intent on changing the way we did business in a way that reduced exposure to employees, and in doing that were able to convince our insurance carriers that we were handling the exposure so well that it reduced our liability.” Granite’s current program includes: internal action level for amount of exposures permissible for its employees (a level he notes was half of Cal/OSHA’s level); protocol for how and when controls would be implemented; and a medical surveillance program for employees, among other components.

Jerry Shupe of Hensel Phelps Construction Co. and Bill Koponen of Syblon Reid also addressed how their companies have tackled the jobsite dust issues and the importance of doing so. Shupe pointed out that one positive aspect of the 1530 standards is that it specifies a hierarchy of controls for managing job site dust that starts out with eliminating or reducing the exposure as the first line of defense, followed by implementing engineering controls, then administrative or work practice and then as a last line of defense utilizing personal protective equipment.

Bill Koponen stressed the importance of communication with jobsite personnel. “Over-communicate with them; over-train them,” he urged. “I encourage you to bring your manufacturers (of the dust control equipment) in to give people a hands-on demonstration on the jobsite.” He added, “I think the bottom line to return on investment is, we’re all here because we care about our employees.”

Finally Marcus Oden, Senior Vice President of HILTI, gave an overview of the various “harmonized systems” offered for dust control by his company. The seminar wrapped up with a hands-on demonstration of the various dust control equipment offered by HILTI.