“From the point of view of construction workers, the biggest flaw in OSHA’s new chromium standard is its failure to address the impacts of the chromium in wet cement,” says LIUNA General President Terence M. O’Sullivan.

The new standard, announced late February 27, is being heavily questioned. Problematic is the standard’s apparent reliance, in part, on data supplied by the chromium industry in setting a new permissible exposure limit (PEL) of five micrograms per cubic meter of air (see related story). Last week, the Washington Post uncovered that this industry-supplied data was doctored and inaccurate.

For construction workers, the omission of any standard for wet Portland cement is a more serious flaw. Airborne emissions are a serious problem in electroplating shops, but they are not a common problem on construction sites. In construction, the main danger is skin exposure to cement in wet concrete. The chromium in the cement caused allergic reactions and concrete dermatitis, a serious, painful and often irreversible skin condition.

Working with other unions, The Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund of North America gathered the substantial testimony in support of a standard that would require either the addition of ferrous sulfate to the cement in its manufacturing process – a procedure, now required in Europe, which chemically eliminates the toxic quality – or the provision of clean water for clean-up on all construction sites. More than 200 Laborers submitted written testimony.

Despite formally agreeing that the danger is real, OSHA decided to add nothing to chromium standard on wet cement. In the Federal Register, the agency said, “OSHA has determined that addressing the dermal hazards from these exposures to [hexavalent chromium] through guidance materials and enforcement of existing personal protective equipment and hygiene standards may be a more effective approach.”

Based on past performance, it is unclear how guidance and enforcement of existing standards will improve the situation. In fiscal year 2005, out of 18,000 inspections, OSHA issued only 64 citations for sanitary violations in construction, and these covered all sanitation issues, including toilets, hand washing, potable water and other concerns. The average penalty was $227.35.

“To our dismay, OSHA has kept the burden on workers to take care of themselves with personal protective equipment,” says O’Sullivan. “Yet, the testimony showed that despite the best efforts of workers, exposure to cement in wet concrete on construction sites cannot be prevented. While PPE is necessary, it is not sufficient, and OSHA made a mistake in not incorporating the engineering and administrative controls that we recommended. Whatever OSHA decides to do in reconsideration of its new PEL, it must reverse its decision to leave Portland cement use unregulated.”