Through its position on OSHA’s Advisory Committee on Construction Safety and Health (AACSH), the LHSFNA has initiated efforts to include exposures to Portland cement in OSHA’s proposed standard for hexavalent chromium in construction that is set for issue in October.

Debate over Engineering Solution

The ingredient in Portland cement that causes allergic contact dermatitis is hexavalent chromium. This chromate is water-soluble and penetrates skin, causing problems for five to 15 percent of construction workers in the United States.

While personal protective equipment and careful washing can prevent disease, the risk – according to some experts – can be completely eliminated simply by adding ferrous sulfate in the manufacture of the cement.

In Europe, this is common practice and, in some nations, required by law. When water is added to the dry cement with ferrous sulfate, a benign chemical reaction changes the chromate to 3-valent chromium that is not water soluble, does not penetrate the skin and, therefore, does not cause contact dermatitis.

The addition of ferrous sulfate has no impact on the quality of the cement and adds less than one percent to the direct manufacturing cost.

A variety of studies in Europe have shown substantial reductions in disease in situations where the additive is employed. However, U.S. manufacturers have been reluctant to add the sulfate because, they point out, the European studies are not conclusive.

For instance, in Belgium the rate of contact dermatitis seems to have declined despite no requirements there for reduced hexavalent chromium. U.S. manufacturers also assert that time delays between the inclusion of ferrous sulfate in manufacturing and the actual use of the cement in construction could render the sulfate ineffective, depending on packaging and storage conditions.

“Another factor,” says LHSFNA Occupational Safety and Health Division Director Scott Schneider, “may be the extra cost associated with acquiring the rights to use Europe’s patented manufacturing processes.” This would add about a dollar to the price per ton of cement (currently about $84/ton).

After a lawsuit by Public Citizen, the courts ordered OSHA to issue a proposed rule on exposures to hexavalent chromium in construction by October and final rule by January, 2006. Under the law, all draft rules for construction must be reviewed by AACSH prior to publication. Thus, in February, AACSH convened to comment on draft language developed by OSHA.

Scott Schneider, the LHSFNA Director of Occupational Safety and Health and a member of AACSH, noted that the draft language dealt exclusively with airborne hexavalent chromium which is produced, mainly, through painting and welding. Schneider urged the committee to recommend that the new rule also regulate hexavalent chromium exposures that result from contact with Portland cement.

Many Laborers work with cement on a regular basis and endure contact dermatitis as a result. In many cases, constant exposure leads to an allergic reaction and forces the end of their careers.

After the initial discussion, the AACSH voted seven to five to recommend inclusion of Portland cement in the proposed rule. The vote split along labor-management lines. After the meeting, in an ad hoc session, Schneider, two management representatives and a public representative discussed the practical impacts of the decision.

“Upon closer examination,” says Schneider, “the management representatives realized that the burdens of including Portland cement in the proposed rule were negligible and the benefits significant. In the next morning’s session their support resulted in a 12-0 vote in favor of inclusion.”

The only costs of ensuring protection against hexavalent chromium exposure due to wet cement are providing proper personal protective equipment (gloves and boots which are already commonly provided), hygiene facilities for washing after work (also, already provided) and training so the workforce understands the danger and takes necessary precautions.

Based on the decision of the committee, Schneider wrote to OSHA Director John Henshaw saying, “I hope you see that a consensus between labor and management was reached on the need to apply this standard to Portland cement operations in construction and that it can be applied in a manner that would not be burdensome on the industry, while at the same time protecting the health of workers.”

It remains to be seen what OSHA will do with this input. The agency will review the committee’s recommendation and decide by October whether or not to amend its draft language to include Portland cement. If it does not, the LHSFNA and other interested parties will have the opportunity to submit formal comments in response to the draft rule and, thus, encourage inclusion in the final rule.

[Steve Clark]