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Published: Fall, 2002; Vol 4, Num 1

 

New Jersey Highway Construction Partners
Seek Solution to Silica Dust Exposure

"We're hot on the trail of an effective jackhammer silica dust control," says Ken Hoffner, Assistant Director of the New Jersey Laborers' Health and Safety Fund (NJLHSF). "Perhaps, as early as October, we can test some practical solutions in live work zones."

New Jersey Silica Partnership

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)
NJ Department of Transportation
NJ Department of Health and Senior Services
NJ Laborers' Health and Safety Fund
Laborers' Health and Safety Fund of North America
NJ Locals 472 and 172 Safety, Education and Training Fund
NJ OSHA Area Offices
NJ Turnpike Authority
Utility Contractors Association of New Jersey
Several LIUNA Signatory Contractors
Associated General Contractors of NJ
Mt. Sinai Medical Center

Field tests last July followed two years of preliminary investigation and analysis by the New Jersey Silica Partnership (see box). NJLHSF was able to forge such a broad partnership because the extreme danger of silica exposure is widely acknowledged (see sidebar).

During the preliminary investigation, monitoring confirmed that many construction site operations-including jack hammering, milling asphalt off roadways and sawing concrete roadbed-have typical exposures in excess of limits set by either the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) or the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

After seeing the seriousness of these exposures, the partners first adopted model contract language and DOT construction specifications, including appropriate respiratory protection, to control them. Next, the partnership looked at the highest exposure operations in hopes of finding ways to re-engineer and better control risk.

At the top of the list was hammering on concrete with 90-pound jackhammers. In July, with signatory employer Bishop-Sanzari supplying concrete slabs and Laborers from Local 472 operating the jackhammers, four tests were conducted-one with no dust control system, one with a wet system and two with vacuum systems (see photos below). NIOSH and the NJ Department of Health and Senior services measured the associated exposure levels.

Analysis of Data
From the Big Dig:*

Among all construction workers in Boston's "Big Dig," laborers have the highest mean exposure to respirable dust and quartz (a compound of silica).

Laborers and operating engineers experience the highest concentrations of quartz as a percentage of the dust they breathe.

"Construction is the most frequently recorded industry on death certificates for individuals dying from silicosis" (p 452).

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IRAC) recently added silica to its list of human carcinogens (cancer-causing agents in humans). Studies show a correlation between construction work and increased cancer of the lungs, colon and stomach (US, generally); throat, urinary tract and other digestive organs (CA); trachea, bronchus and lungs (Japan); and buccal cavity, pharynx and lungs (NC).
 

*Woskie, Susan R. et al, Exposures to Quartz, Diesel, Dust and Welding Fumes During Heavy and Highway Construction, AIHA Journal (63), Jul/Aug 2002.

A Laborer tests the vacuum-control system.

"During the tests," says Hoffner, "it was obvious from the visible dust how much better the wet system performed relative to the vacuum systems. A LIUNA signatory contractor, Tilcon, did a wonderful job fabricating that prototype spray control. Now, while we await the official NIOSH results, we're looking for an equipment maker willing to design and manufacture a comparable wet system to retrofit existing equipment. Of course, they all want to know if there's a market for this."

Clearly, the field test results show that a need exists, but this, alone, does not make a market. A market exists only if someone is willing to pay to address the need. Ultimately, that will have to be the contractors who do highway construction and the state authorities who pay for it.

"Aside from just doing what's right," says Hoffner, "contractors are motivated by their bottom line. Regulation can move that line, and in New Jersey it looks like OSHA is fairly aggressive in citing silica exposure hazards. This encourages contractor vigilance and the formation of a market.

"If we can find a commercially practical solution to this problem," says Hoffner, "it will help everyone involved. Obviously, our members will face a lower risk at work, and our signatory employers will lower their risk exposure and, hopefully, their insurance premiums, too. And that's not just in New Jersey. This could make highway construction safer all across the country."

A Laborer tests the wet-control system.

[Steve Clark]