It is not a new OSHA standard, but the settlement signed by the agency this week is likely to serve Laborers just as well.
Declaring victory, LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer, New England Regional Manager and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni said, “This agreement finally ensures that OSHA will begin paying attention to the problems that Laborers face in handling Portland cement. The hexavalent chromium in wet cement causes serious and often debilitating dermatitis, but it can be prevented if adequate sanitation facilities are provided so that our members can clean up after work.”
The settlement is especially satisfying because it wrestled victory from the jaws of last spring’s defeat. In February 2006 – after 13 years of struggle, a lawsuit, a court order and many hours of testimony about the hazards of hexavalent chromium (Cr(VI)), a common contaminant in Portland cement – OSHA adopted a standard to cover airborne exposures to Cr(VI) but denied the request of LIUNA, the Teamsters and the Building Trades Department to include procedures for the safe handling of Portland cement.
LIUNA and its allies returned to court. Last month, as the court’s filing deadline approached, OSHA reached out with a proposed settlement. After a flurry of negotiation, a deal was reached. Once the agreement is accepted by the court, for the first time, employers will have a clear duty to provide protections to workers who handle wet Portland cement.
Under the terms of the agreement, a compliance directive for last year’s industrial Cr(VI) standard will be sent to all OSHA regions requiring inspectors on construction projects to determine if Portland cement is in use and, if so, whether it is being used in compliance with the agency’s dust, sanitation, hazard communication, personal protective equipment and recordkeeping standards. If the site is not in compliance with these rules, citations will be issued. OSHA also agreed to “notify the public” about the Cr(VI) hazards in Portland cement and is expected to produce online and print materials to dispense the information.
The directive should increase OSHA inspectors’ awareness of the seriousness of the Portland cement hazard and lead to increased citations for a lack of adequate sanitation resulting in greater compliance. In 2006, only four citations were issued by Federal OSHA for violations of the sanitation standard at concrete construction sites, with an average fine of $150. Sites need to provide a way to thoroughly wash and dry hands after exposure to wet cement. This requires clean running water, pH-neutral soap and individual paper towels. Employers must also supply protective gloves and boots and conduct hazard training to ensure that workers understand the danger and know how to protect themselves.
“Most union contractors already comply with the sanitation and PPE standards so the directive imposes little additional burden other than the provision of running water and soap,” says Sabitoni. “It will help level the playing field with non-union competitors who seldom supply sanitation facilities or PPE. In any case, the directive will protect workers, limit lost work days and prevent disability. For contractors, it will help retain quality workers and control compensation costs.”