As with other hazards, such as noise, OSHA’s testing and time-weighted average (TWA) assessment system does not work well in construction where conditions on the jobsite vary substantially from day to day. Thus, effective toxic exposure control in construction requires an augmented regulatory regime.

“While our members do not typically endure steady or prolonged exposure to toxics,” says LIUNA General Secretary Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni, “irregular and potentially dangerous exposures are commonplace.” He mentions solvents, frequently used to clean tools and equipment, as an example.

Many solvents listed in the new CalEPA report (see page 4) do not have established PELs (or have outdated ones), and the PELs of many others were adopted to protect workers only from the short-term effects of the chemicals (e.g., skin, eye or lung irritation, dizziness), not the long-term danger of cancer. Yet, at its current PEL, the worst solvent on the list – Bis (2-chloroethyl) – is estimated to cause between 730 and 940 cancers per 1,000 workers exposed over their working lifetimes. Many other solvents cause fewer but still significant numbers of cancers.

“The PELs have to be updated,” says Walter Jones, the LHSFNA’s Occupational Safety and Health Division Associate Director, “but that’s not enough to solve the problem in construction where conditions are so variable.” He says the best approach is the “task-based” approach recommended almost 30 years ago by OSHA’s Advisory Committee on Construction Safety and Health (ACCSH). The ACCSH noted that the TWA system requires new testing whenever hazards change and, then, the implementation of a different protection program. Testing is expensive and results are not often known until work with the toxic is over. Alternatively, the ACCSH would have minimized testing but required protection – engineering and administrative controls as well as personal protective equipment (respirators) – for any activity that commonly or typically causes dangerous exposures. OSHA never adopted the ACCSH recommendation so, today, toxic exposures in construction are mostly unregulated (only five percent of OSHA inspections check health hazards).

“For any given person, even low levels of exposure can be dangerous,” Jones says, “so we should simply require protections whenever anyone works with or around these known carcinogens.” While costs are associated with implementing engineering and administrative controls and providing PPE, this approach would maintain a level playing field by imposing the same costs on all employers.

Best Advice

Until California or some other stimulus spurs action by OSHA, toxic safety in construction will remain a serious problem. “It is vital that Laborers and LIUNA’s signatory employers understand that PELs do not indicate acceptable levels of toxic exposure,” says Jones.

“As a general rule, if you commonly breathe dust or fumes at work, you need to protect yourself and work with your employer to reduce exposures,” says Sabitoni. “Carefully read the material safety data sheets (MSDSs) for all substances and always take recommended precautions.”

Information on dangerous chemicals frequently found on construction sites is available in Toxics, a 72-page pocket guide published by the LHSFNA and the Laborers-AGC Education and Training Fund. Laborers and participating signatory employers can order it online.

[Steve Clark]