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Respiratory Protection Part 2: Countertop Fabrication and Silica Dust Exposure

Posted on 19 August 2015 by cradmin

silica-dust Last month, we took a look at general respiratory protection in the countertop fabrication industry, and this month, we expand on that topic by exploring silica dust exposure and silicosis. Silica dust is the number one airborne contaminant in countertop fabrication shops, and it may exist anywhere stone, quartz surfacing or concrete slabs are being cut.

Silica has recently become a hot topic among countertop fabricators since the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced a proposal to decrease the allowable limits for silica exposure. Although this proposed rule change has caused quite a stir in the industry and very few fabricators agree with it, the proposal has already had an impact by raising awareness of the issue.

Silicosis Cases Decline but Still Common

The problem with excessive exposure to silica dust is that it can accumulate in the lungs and cause a potentially fatal chronic disease known as silicosis. Although cases of silicosis have fallen and the mortality rate from the disease has decreased over the past 50 years, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reports that approximately 100 people die in the U.S. every year from complications associated with the disease, and from 2011 to 2013, 12 of those people were under 45 years of age.

In addition, 2015 marks the first time a countertop fabricator in the U.S. has been diagnosed with silicosis, joining the ranks of Italy, Spain and Israel. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the man was exposed to silica dust from quartz surfacing for 10 years. Quartz countertops are 70 to 90 percent crystalline silica, and with the material’s surge in popularity, excessive exposure must be addressed in fabrication shops. However, it is important to note that silica is also present in nearly all types of natural stone, including granite and soapstone, and concrete.

Protecting Employees and Ourselves

OSHA3768aCountertop fabricators can take several steps to control silica levels in their shops and limit exposure to workers. The first step in the process is monitor the air in order to determine just how much silica dust is present. This will not only help protect the health of anyone present but will also help you stay in compliance with federal and state regulations. If levels above what is permissible are found, employers are mandated to take corrective action to reduce worker exposure.

The methods that can be used to reduce silica exposure fall into three categories: engineering controls, work practices and personal protective equipment (PPE). Each of these categories should be considered part of a hierarchy. If engineering controls do not sufficiently lower silica levels, changes in work practices must be attempted, and if levels are still too high, employees in the area must be fit for and provided with appropriate PPE.

Engineering Controls

  • Employ water-spraying systems to keep dust from becoming airborne.
  • Use remote-controlled saws and other tools to keep people out of the exposure zones.
  • Modify handheld grinders to deliver water to the point of contact.
  • Replace dry grinders with wet-edge routers.
  • Use tools under a shroud and vacuum with a HEPA filter.
  • Install local exhaust ventilation (LEV) systems.
  • Use combinations of the above.

Work Practices

  • When cleaning, use HEPA vacuums or wet sweepers rather than dry sweepers or compressed air.
  • Replace filters frequently.
  • Increase flow on water systems.
  • Wet slabs before fabricating.

When cutting, grinding and polishing countertops onsite, control silica dust exposure by performing as much work as possible under controlled shop conditions, and use LEV systems when wet methods are impractical. In addition, try to use tools equipped with dust shrouds, and clean up all dust with a HEPA-filtered vacuum as soon as possible.

Respiratory Protection

hydfrac_hazalert_12When engineering controls and work practices have failed to lower silica dust levels, employers are required to provide respirator protection to employees, but this means much more than simply making PPE available. Employers are required to create a respiratory protection program that meets the OSHA Respiratory Protection Standard (29 CFR 1910.134). Such programs include the following requirements:

  • hydfrac_hazalert_11Selecting the proper respirators
  • Fit-testing employees for respirators
  • Completing medical evaluations for all employees required to wear respirators
  • Training employees how to properly use respirators
  • Observing that employees are using and maintaining respirators properly

When respirators are required to be worn in areas with high levels of silica dust, at minimum, the PPE must be a NIOSH-approved N95 respirator. When silica levels are higher than 10 times the limit, half-face respirators may not be used. Instead, you must use respirators that offer more protection, such as full-face respirators, which are effective in environments that are 50 times higher than the current federal exposure level. Another option is to purchase powered air-purifying respirators (PAPRs), which are more comfortable and easier on the body than pressure-demand respirators are.

For Further Information

Further information on silica dust exposure and silicosis can be found in a variety of ways. A great deal of current information is available online, and you may also tap into other resources, including state and federal OSHA offices, which provide free consultation services for small-to-mid-sized businesses (SMBs). You can also contact trade organization, such as the Marble Institute of America (MIA), which has been recognized by OSHA for making comprehensive training resources available.

A few of the helpful materials you can access online are as follows:

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Respiratory Protection in the Countertop Industry (Part 1)

Posted on 21 July 2015 by cradmin

respiratoryprotection_indexForklifts and falling slabs are the primary safety concerns for countertop fabricators, but in addition to safety, employers are responsible for the health of the employees in their shops. Health concerns in the workplace are too numerous to mention in a single article, but many of them can be boiled down to one particular element: respiratory protection.

However, the concept and application of respiratory protection alone can be complex, so we are presenting the topic in two parts. In Part 1, we will explore respirators in general and some of the federal and state regulations regarding their use, and in Part 2, coming next month, we will explore silica dust in greater detail.

Respiratory Protection in the Workplace

Simply touching or coming into close contact with volatile compounds can cause serious medical issues, and most workers try to pay close attention to what gets on their skin, but when the dangers are airborne, they can be impossible to avoid. Whether the danger is airborne silica dust from cutting stone or solvent vapors from adhesives or coating, the only real protection is to wear a properly fitting respirator designed specifically for the hazards.

Today, it is estimated that around 5 million workers in 1.3 million workplaces are required to wear respirators while on the job in order to comply with all federal and state laws. Respirators are designed to protect workers from harmful substances in the air or from environments with insufficient oxygen. Airborne hazards may cause any number of serious and life-threatening medical conditions, including cancer, disease, respiratory impairment and lack of oxygen.

The federal rules for respirators and when they must be worn by workers are spelled out in OSHA Standard 29 CFR, Part 1910.134 – Respiratory Protection, Occupational Safety and Health Standards. However, a training and reference sheet produced by OSHA makes it easy for employers to understand the requirements under this standard: Major Requirements of OSHA’s Respiratory Protection Standard 29 CFR 1910.134.

Reducing Respiratory Hazards

Under OSHA’s respiratory protection standard, employers are required to provide a safe and healthy working environment free of respiratory hazards. When such hazards are present, the employer is required to implement a three-step process in order to control them.

  1. Identify all of the respiratory hazards in the workplace and at specific job sites. This includes considering the sources of respiratory hazards in raw materials, processes and end products and reviewing safety data sheets for chemicals used.
  1. Evaluate employee exposure levels to each identified hazard. Obtain data about employee exposure by taking personal and locational air samples and comparing it to data from industry studies, trade associations or manufacturers.
  1. Eliminate or reduce exposure to hazards. Respirators are expensive, incur ongoing costs and reduce productivity. Because of this, it is much more desirable and cost effective to eliminate or reduce respiratory hazards through the following means rather than submit to the use of respirators and as the only means of protection.
  • Engineering controls – Ventilation, exhaust ducts, process isolation
  • Work practice controls – Wet-cutting, etc.
  • Administrative controls – Reducing the number of employees or the amount of time employees are exposed to specific hazards, substituting toxic materials for non-toxic materials

Requirements of the Respiratory Protection Standard

If you, as an employer, cannot completely eliminate the need for respirators in the workplace, which is the respiratory protection standard, it is recommended that you take the following four steps in implementing an effective respiratory program:

  1. Educate yourself on respirators and respiratory health.
  2. Seek the help of outside experts. Free and paid assistance is available from several sources:
  • State and federal OSHA consultation services
  • Workers’ compensation carriers
  • Trade associations
  • Private health and safety consulting firms
  • Respirator manufacturers, distributors and vendors
  1. Develop and implement a written respiratory protection program.
  2. Establish a system to evaluate the program, ensuring it remains updated, efficient and effective.

Developing an Effective Respiratory Protection Program

med_evaluationsIf airborne contaminants are present in your workplace, it is not enough simply to supply respirators to workers in the hazardous areas. You must develop a full respiratory protection program. The program must be put in writing and describe how all of the following will be accomplished:

  1. Choose the appropriate respirators for each employee in each hazardous zone.
  1. Conduct medical evaluations for employees. All employees required to wear respirators must complete an OSHA Respirator Medical Evaluation Questionnaire and undergo a physical examination by a licensed physician trained in occupational health. Remember, the questionnaires and results of the examination are confidential medical records that should be kept by the doctor or healthcare organization. In most cases, it is a violation of the law to store these records on premises where they can be accessed by unauthorized personnel. However, employers should receive evaluation documents from the doctor that should be kept in your records.
  1. Fit-test employees who are required to wear tight-fitting respirators. Equipment and services ror fit-testing may be available at local occupational health clinics.
  1. Observe employees to ensure they are using their respirators correctly at all times, while performing regular work and during emergencies.
  1. Clean, maintain and replace respirators as necessary to ensure they are always working properly. Further details of this requirement can be found within the OSHA rule.
  1. Train employees on respiratory hazards and how to protect themselves from such hazards.
  1. Evaluate the respiratory protection program in order to keep it updated for new materials, processes and environments.

Types of Respirators

typesWhen choosing respirators for your employees, it is imperative to understand that you cannot use just any respirator. Several different types of respirators have been developed to protect people from specific respiratory hazards in various environments. It is up to you to discover and evaluate which hazards your employees are being exposed to and which respirators protect against these hazards.

Respirators are organized into categories based on several factors, and one of these is the inlet covering, which is the part of the respirator that forms a protective barrier between the contaminated air and the wearer’s respiratory tract. Tight-fitting respirators include a facemask that creates a seal over the face while loose-fitting respirators typically cover the user’s entire head and sometimes the shoulders.

Respirators can further be classified as air purifying and atmosphere supplying. Air purifying respirators include a filter, canister or cartridge for specific air hazards, and different filters are needed for each class and type of contaminant. Non-powered air-purifying respirators are activated when the worker inhales, but powered air-purifying respirators make it easier to breathe. Types of air-purifying respirators are as follows:

  • Particulate-removing respirator
  • Gas-and-vapor-removing respirator
  • Combination respirator for removing particulates and vapors

Atmosphere-supplying respirators provide the wearer with breathable air from a source outside the immediate environment. The three major types of atmosphere-supplying respirators are as follows:

  • Supplied-air respirator (SAR) – Supplies breathable air from a stationary source through a flexible hosing system.
  • Self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) – Supplies breathable air from a portable source.
  • Combination respirator – Can be used as an SAR or SCBA.

Respiratory Protection Resources for Employers

Respiratory protection is one of the leading occupational health topics in the United States, and dozens of resources are available online to help employers comply with the federal standard and state regulations and to protect the health and lives of their employees. While the following list is not exhaustive, it provides a good starting point for anyone who wishes to implement a new respiratory protection plan or audit an existing plan.

If you have a state OSHA agency, it will be your greatest resource for information specific to your location. However, the federal OSHA branch and several states also offer valuable information on the subject.

Be on the lookout for next month’s CountertopResource.com Health & Safety Watch, featuring Part 2 of our series on respiratory protection: Countertop Fabrication and Silica Dust Exposure.

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