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Published: Winter, 2004; Vol 6, Num 1


Highlighting Commitment to Safety and Health:

Signatory Contractor Lends Brainpower
To NJ Silica Partnership

Joe Sugar, Tilcon Safety Officer

Joe Sugar, Tilcon Safety Officer (Photo: Steve Clark).

"It's not that we want safe production," says Tilcon Safety Officer Joe Sugar. "We want safety with as much production as possible."

It is that spirit that guided Tilcon New Jersey President George Thompson when, three years ago, he told Sugar about the formation of the New Jersey Silica Partnership and urged him to get involved.

The Partnership is an alliance of state transportation and health officials, the LIUNA locals 472 and 172 training funds, several signatory contractors, the Associated General Contractors of NJ, the Utility Transportation Contractors Association of NJ, Mt. Sinai Medical Center, NIOSH, OSHA and the New Jersey Laborers' Health and Safety Fund (NJLHSF).

"We came together because the danger of silica dust was obvious to all of us," says Ken Hoffner, Assistant Director of the NJLHSF. "Our initial plans were slowed by 9/11 clean-up operations, but we are moving ahead, now, in finding ways to reduce exposures on jobsites."

Sugar and his Tilcon employers deserve much of the credit.

Testing dust control systems on jackhammer operations.

After tests showed that jackhammer operations were a major source of silica dust overexposure, the partnership - aware of the limitations of respiratory protection - decided to investigate engineering controls. The alliance asked if anyone could design and build a model system for experimental tests. Sugar thought he could build a wet control model.

"Our first go at it was a basic design that I fabricated and Tilcon machinist Lefteiri (Teddy) Gougas built," says Sugar. Tilcon's primary business is construction materials, and most of its employees work in quarry or mining operations. About one-fourth work in highway construction. "As a mining company, we have a lot of experience using water to control dust. It was just a matter of applying some of those principles to a jackhammer."

In tests conducted last year (see New Jersey Highway Construction Partners Seek Solution to Silica Dust Exposures), Sugar's design substantially outperformed two vacuum systems designed by other partners, and he has improved it several times since. This summer, at day-long tests at LIUNA signatory contractor E.E. Cruz, Sugar's "dust eliminator" reduced dust exposure by more than 70 percent and silica exposure by 78 percent.

"The guys who ran the hammers at the test loved it," says Mike Cackowski, Director of the LIUNA Local 472 Safety, Education and Training Trust Fund in Aberdeen. "With the wet controls, we hope to make the use of respiratory masks unnecessary."

One potential obstacle to wet controls - contractors' aversion to using water where they must subsequently adhere materials - has been abated recently by the development of water friendly epoxies. According to Wayne Camp, Vice President of Semcor, a concrete saw manufacturing and service company, "These products work well with wet cutting or drilling."

After a few more minor refinements, the wet controls will be field-tested at a signatory's N.J. Turnpike road construction site. Then, commercial applications will be pursued.

"Joe's done a wonderful job for the Partnership," says Hoffner, "but I want to give credit to Tilcon. Without the company's commitment to safety, Joe wouldn't have been available to us."

"At our Tilcon NJ Construction Division, we've had no lost work time in the last two years," says Sugar proudly. "The key is our supervisors. They're responsible for safety. They run their own safety programs, and they can stop jobs if they need to.

"The company president is a former safety director," Sugar continues, "and every management meeting starts with safety. The supervisors are really into it. They point out problems and successes they see at other companies and try to build on good ideas. All our subcontractors have to sign on to the same rules as Tilcon. They have to purchase the necessary equipment and take it with them when they're done."

The company conducts its own best practices training for its mining operations, but relies on the union to train its construction workforce and its supervisors. Virtually all-union, the company, according to Sugar, "gets excellent cooperation from the workforce. There's a way to talk to workers that conveys you have their best interests at heart. The union stewards are good; the members get good wages and benefits. They buy into the safety program knowing the benefit to everyone. There's no resistance."

Sugar, himself, has worked in construction for more than 30 years, beginning as a welder. For 27 years, he's also been a volunteer fireman. For him, the safety officer job is a natural. "I enjoy every day. Our motto is safe production, and Tilcon will accept no less from its employees and supervisors."

[Steve Clark]