Why Respirators and Dust Masks Matter
OSHA’s new silica standards are forcing contractors to learn new ways of protection.
By Michael J. Pallerino
Hunter Weekes knows the risks. After nearly 20 years in the construction industry, there isn’t much he hasn’t seen or done in the field, logging time as a superintendent and project manager on numerous projects of all scopes.
Weekes, a LEED AP, and VP at the Greenville, S.C.-based Weekes Construction, says his focus today is on working safely as much as it is the daily deadlines and demands of the job. That’s why he paid close attention when Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) passed its newest silica standards, which went into effect on Sept. 23.
Weekes is not alone. Of the nearly 2.3 million workers in the more than 600,000 workplaces in the field, OSHA estimates that about 840,000 of them are exposed to respirable crystalline silica levels that exceed the new permissible exposure limit (PEL). Nearly 90 percent of those workers are employed in the construction industry.
OSHA’s new, stricter standards – one for construction, and the other for general industry and maritime – put an emphasis on respiratory protection. According to OSHA research, inhaling silica dust can lead to silicosis, an incurable lung disease that can be deadly if severe enough. Too much silica exposure – which workers come into contact with via activities such as grinding, cutting and blasting materials like concrete, stone and brick – can also lead to lung cancer, kidney disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
The new standards did not come without a push from some OSHA officials, who have been advocating for them for the last 20-plus years. Today, the latest ruling requires that services employers must make training available to workers who are exposed and are at risk to high levels of silica dust.
Where respirators and dust masks come in
Many believe the new regulations are a critical step in ensuring worker safety. “First off, wearing protective gear while working is one of the primary means of preventing injury,” says Weekes. “The simple habit of utilizing and wearing, as well as routinely inspecting safety gear can stop injury before it even happens.”
Weekes says that proper particle respirators are one of the most important pieces of safety equipment for working in hazardous environments. “Silica and other common construction hazards can cause permanent harm. Knowledge of proper respiratory protection and habitual use can all but help eliminate that danger.”
Before the new standards were enacted, the existing one required that silica dust particles, which are 100 times smaller than sand granules, be limited to 250 micrograms per cubic meter of air over an average of eight hours – a typical work shift. The new standard reduces that to 50 micrograms over the same period.
The ruling puts a premium emphasis on the importance of respirators and masks, which can be vital protection allies against agents that can be insidious. It’s the kind of danger that has grabbed the attention of Evan Patrick, an Atlanta-based marble setter for Brick and Allied (BAC) Local 8 Southeast. Patrick says the effects of silica are evident in a former colleague, who was stricken with the beginning of silicosis after years of exposure to dust on the job, and it changed his stance on the importance of silica dust prevention.
“He told me that workers should always wear a mask, no matter what anybody or any rulings say,” Patrick says. “The OSHA standard is the minimum one. Some contractors have standards above those. Contractors will ask that you at least wear a dust mask. If you have to wear a respirator, then you have to have tests done, so it’s a process. But exposure to silica is a really big deal.”
And that’s what every worker who comes into contact with any type of dust or particles must understand. “The thing is that you don’t even realize you are getting it until it is too late,” says Dr. Gary Orris, a physician who has 30 years of experience in family medicine and emergency room and trauma care. “Some agents, like asbestos, may not affect you for years. If you work in the same environment on a regular basis, these chemicals can build up, and the risk is magnified. Depending on the worksite and the potential toxins or agents in the air, workers may have to wear them the entire time on site.”
With varying levels of insidious agents come protection options. OSHA’s latest standard puts the onus on the Pro to identify any potential toxic agent and make sure he has the appropriate mask/respirator for the job. There is an inherent risk for those who do not comply, including a maximum fine of $12,675 for a serious or other-than-serious violation; $12,675 per day past the abatement date for a failure-to-abate violation; and $126,749 for a repeated or willful violation.
What you can do
The regulation isn’t specific regarding the type of respirator that should be worn in a situation involving silica, but instead gives guidelines about first controlling exposure to that substance, and then determining a path forward with personal protective equipment (PPE) appropriate to the specific situation.
If a contractor cannot fully eliminate dust from the air, he can use a respirator to help keep the airborne silica out of his lungs and monitor the air content of the worksites for silica. If he wears a respirator for 30 days or more in a year, he also is required to have medical evaluations performed on him.
Properly using a respirator includes considerations like ensuring he is clean-shaven, enabling him to have a proper seal on his face. He will also want to be trained, fit tested and medically cleared to use the respirator.
Since it is more difficult to breathe with the device, heart conditions – and other conditions – can make them dangerous to use. Consistently and properly use the device is key.
That said, it’s important to note that for durations of exposure lasting more than four hours per day, and depending on indoor or outdoor conditions, respirator use may be a requirement – even if the contractor is using dust collection or water delivery.
Do your homework
It’s important that the Pro become educated on respirator selection and use. For example, when respirators are required per the guidelines, and there is Assigned Protection Factor (APF) of 10, a HDX N95 respirator can be used, says Elizabeth Rogers, product development merchant for The Home Depot.
The APF describes the workplace level of respiratory protection that a respirator or class of respirators is expected to provide to employees when the employer implements a continuing, effective respiratory protection program.
The HDX N95 features ultrasonically welded head straps, which eliminates the need for stapled head straps. “This reduces irritation to the face,” Rogers says. “It has electrostatically charged, high-quality filter material for low breathing resistance. This makes the respirator more comfortable for the user.”
The 100-percent latex free respirator also is designed to ensure compatibility with glasses and goggles, and offers an aluminum adjustable nosepiece for proper fit. In also has an exhalation valve for improved breathing in hot, humid conditions.
Honeywell answers the call with the Sperian P100 Deluxe Disposable Respirator, which is designed to meet OSHA, EPA and HUD standards. The filtering face piece is designed for work in lead abatement, adhesives, agriculture, brazing, dusty operations, general industrial, grinding, metal cutting, metal pouring, sanding, soldering, welding and sweeping.
Designed to be worn all day, the P100 has a full face-sealing flange that conforms to the natural shape of the user’s face. It provides 99.97 percent particulate efficiency against both oil and non-oil based particulates (versus an N100, which protects against non-oil particulates only).
Like anything else in the construction trade, it all comes down to training. For the Pro, he has to take the matter into his own hands regarding education and product understanding. Brad Bogart, president of Bogart Construction in Irvine, Calif., says the new OSHA standards will be handled like anything else that comes into play in the industry’s wheelhouse. “Take asbestos: When it was first exposed, it took years to understand how it was exposing workers and what safety practices needed to be put in place. Silica is so new, we all have to be cautious.”