Thirteen years ago, in a settlement with the United Steelworkers, OSHA agreed to develop a standard for use of hexavalent chromium Cr(VI), an extremely hazardous substance used commonly in many kinds of production.  After a lawsuit finally forced the agency to begin proceedings, OSHA took testimony in 2005, including the testimony of several Laborers as to the danger of hexavalent chromium in Portland cement.

However, when it issued its long-awaited standard last year, OSHA ignored the Cr(VI) dangers in cement, and the Laborers, the Teamsters and the Building Trades went back to court. Last month, as the court’s filing deadline approached, negotiations with OSHA over a proposed settlement got serious, and the litigants secured a 60-day extension of their deadline, until April 8, so that they can see if OSHA will commit to addressing these hazards. As we go to press, the outline of a possible compromise is in the works.

Pressing OSHA for action, LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer, New England Regional Manager and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni said, “We need a resolution that will finally ensure that OSHA pays attention to the problems that Laborers face in handling Portland cement. The hexavalent chromium in wet cement causes serious, often debilitating dermatitis, but it can be prevented if contractors provide adequate sanitation facilities so that workers can clean up after work. OSHA already requires such facilities, but its failure to enforce the standard leads to its widespread disregard by contractors. We’re asking OSHA to get serious about its own rules.”

Since OSHA decided not to follow the European model that effectively requires an additive to Portland cement to chemically negate the Cr(VI) danger, LIUNA and the other litigants are interested to see if OSHA can come up with a reasonable approach to ensure adequate sanitation facilities on construction worksites. In 2006, OSHA only issued four citations for violations of the sanitation standard at concrete construction sites, with an average fine of $150. Truly adequate sanitation would provide a means to thoroughly wash and dry hands after exposure to wet cement. This requires clean, running water, pH-neutral soap and individual paper towels. It also requires employers to ensure that workers have protective gloves and boots and to conduct hazard training so workers understand the danger and know how to protect themselves.

“Union contractors already comply with the sanitation and PPE standards, so enforcement of these requirements would impose no additional burdens on our signatory employers,” says Sabitoni. “It may, however, help level the playing field with non-union competitors. In any case, by protecting workers, enforcing these measures would limit disability and lost work days, helping contractors retain quality workers and control compensation costs.”