Required by court order to develop a hexavalent chromium (Cr(VI)) standard by January 2006, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) took testimony in February that highlighted the danger in Portland cement as well as the industry’s failure to address it, despite inexpensive and effective means to do so.

The testimony sprang from OSHA’s decision to reject the recommendation of its own tripartite (labor, management and professional) Advisory Committee on Construction Safety and Health (ACCSH) – the recommendation to include Portland cement in the Cr(VI) standard for construction.

“OSHA’s rejection of its own committee’s advice,” says LIUNA General President Terence M. O’Sullivan, “continues the pattern of stonewalling that last year forced the U.S. Court of Appeals to intervene on this issue. Portland cement is among the most hazardous substances that construction Laborers have to handle on a regular basis. It presents a broad and persistent problem that the industry, on a voluntary basis, has failed to address. It is time for OSHA to take action.”

Danger of Cr(VI)

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), Cr(VI) is a potential carcinogen. In general industry, exposure occurs during production processes when the Cr(VI) becomes airborne and is breathed into workers’ lungs. Studies demonstrate an increased risk of lung cancer as a result. It was because of OSHA’s failure to act in the face of this demonstrated danger that Public Citizen won its suit in the U.S. Court of Appeals, forcing OSHA to develop a standard.

Contact Dermatitis – the Anecdotal Evidence

Derrick Deans, a Laborer from NJ Local Union 415, has worked 20 years in construction, his hands frequently irritated. “No one told us about hexavalent chromium, so I didn’t use protection. I’d just rinse my hands with the hose on the cement truck and keep working. Eventually, my hand became infected. Then, I went to a couple dermatologists and found out about contact dermatitis.”

“We’ve never tested the water off the trucks for hexavalent chromium,” says Chris Trahan, who led the BCTD testimony, “but we’ve tested and know it’s got cement in it. It’s not potable. The pH is off the chart.”

“Once you get it, it keeps coming back. When it breaks out, guys sleep with rubber gloves, gauze bandages or salves on their hands. But in construction, there’s no sick days so you go to work,” says Gerry Ryan, a former bricklayer who now is a vice president of the union. “It spreads to family members through the truck and clothes, just like asbestos,” he adds.

“You can’t depend on the contractor to supply PPE,” says Deans. “Guys do what’s comfortable for them. If I’d have known what I know now, I’d have gotten my own PPE back then.”

“I brought vinegar and water in my own truck so I could clean up after work,” says Bob Mion, currently a training instructor for the bricklayers. “Proper glove use is not the solution. The stuff slips into gloves, and workers’ hands aren’t always pristine when they go in. We’ve tested, and there’s really no difference in the pH on the skin, even with glove use. ”

“I’ve know plenty of guys that have problems,” says Deans, “but I don’t know any that report them. Contractors don’t want to hear it. It’d be a workers’ comp claim for them.

“My time off is limited. I work all the time, straight through this,” Deans continues, raising his injured hand. “My hand sometimes peels and bleeds. My skin is so coarse, my 10-year old son won’t even give me a high five anymore.”

However, as is common in its regulatory practice, OSHA proposed separate Cr(VI) standards for general industry and construction (as well as for shipyards), asserting that the unique conditions of construction – changing worksites and mobile workforces – necessitate special regulatory measures.

OSHA specifically proposed exempting construction from Portland cement regulation, asserting that, in wet form, the Cr(VI) in Portland cement does not become airborne and, thus, poses little danger for construction workers.

However, at last August’s ACCSH meeting, when the committee reviewed OSHA’s proposed standard before it was made public, LHSFNA Occupational Safety and Health Division Director Scott Schneider, an ACCSH member, pointed out that the mixing of dry Portland cement with sand and water to make concrete poses a significant inhalation danger for construction laborers. At the same time, he said, the non-lethal hazards of Cr(VI) in Portland cement were significant and also needed regulatory control.

At Schneider’s urging, the ACCSH, with the support of both its labor and management representatives, recommended that OSHA adopt a Cr(VI) standard for construction that addresses both the dry and wet hazards of Portland cement. When OSHA rejected the recommendation, the LHSFNA and others countered with testimony at the February public hearings.

For and Against Protection

The testimony was organized by the Building and Construction Trades Department (BCTD) of the AFL-CIO.

Testimony by Dr. Ruth Ruttenberg showed that between 1.5 and 1.8 million American construction workers are regularly exposed to wet cement, and five to 15 percent of them develop dermatitis during their work lives. The typical number of lost work days associated with an incident of dermatitis ranges from four to 13 days, exceeding the average lost workday rate of three per injury.

Ruttenberg testified that hand washing is “the most important prevention against cement-induced dermatitis.” She calculated that the expense of pH neutral soap and the break time for workers to wash three times a day is “less than a dollar per worker per day.” Regular hand washing would save $90 to $450 for every dollar spent.

Ruttenberg also testified about an inexpensive engineering solution, used in Europe, that essentially eliminates the Cr(VI) hazard by inexpensive adding ferrous sulfate to Portland cement during its manufacture. The addition causes a chemical reaction that has no negative impact on the quality of the cement, yet converts the chromium into a non-porous form that will not penetrate skin.

The main opposition to the inclusion of Portland cement in the proposed construction standard was presented by the Portland Cement Association (PCA) which represents 95 percent of American and 100 percent of Canadian cement-makers.

In its testimony, the PCA offered some assertions that appear to contradict information the association provides on its own website.

For instance, at the hearing the PCA stated, “There is no evidence that dermal exposure to CR(VI) contained in cement poses a significant risk to human health.”

However, on its website in the section “Working Safely with Concrete,” the PCA warns: “Warning. Contact with wet (unhardened) concrete, mortar, cement or cement mixtures can cause SKIN IRRITATION, SEVERE CHEMICAL BURNS (THIRD DEGREE) or SERIOUS EYE DAMAGE. Frequent exposure may be associated with irritant and/or allergic contact dermatitis.”

Further, the PCA adds, “The best way to avoid skin irritation is to wash frequently with pH neutral soap and clean water.” Yet, in its testimony to OSHA, the PCA ignored this advice, saying, “The personal protective equipment…recommended by the PCA is effective in preventing allergic contact dermatitis.”

“Actually,” says LHSFNA Senior Health and Safety Specialist Travis Parsons, who testified at the hearing, “the PCA position is the exact opposite of the ‘hierarchy of controls’ typically recommended by industrial hygienists. We know engineering controls – in this case, ferrous sulfate – and, then, administrative controls – a plan for regular, onsite washing – are the most protective. PPE, the last resort, is the least protective.”

Lack of Hygienic Facilities

If PCA opposition to the proposed rule in construction was motivated by the possibility that OSHA might require the engineering solution now in place throughout Europe, it did not mention the concern.

Rather, the PCA seemed to be fighting on behalf of its customers – construction companies that purchase and use Portland cement. In opposing the standard for construction by ignoring its own published safety guidance on frequent washing with pH neutral soap and clean water, the PCA stood up for the status quo on most worksites where no hygienic facilities are available.

“This is a fundamental problem in the industry,” says O’Sullivan. “If clean water and pH neutral soap were provided on all sites, contact dermatitis and allergic contact dermatitis could be eliminated. If the industry thinks clean water and soap are too difficult to provide, it could implement the engineering solution and do away with the whole problem. Unfortunately, the cement makers and many cement users seem to have formed an unholy alliance, each agreeing to oppose an effective solution that would impose some small cost on the other.”

With the conclusion of oral testimony, OSHA will now receive written testimony from interested parties. Later this year, it will issue its proposed rule or rules on Cr(VI) and invite further comment. The final rule or rules must be in place by January, 2006.