Under new federal OSHA rules, which will go into effect for construction companies across the nation on June 26, employers must prevent all respirable silica dust above a certain level, known as the Permissible Exposure Limit. If it’s known that work will be in an area that creates a level of silica dust above the PEL, employers usually must provide mechanics to tamp down dust creation in the workspace, including wet-working tools, vacuums or personal respirators.
Previous Cal/OSHA regulations, enacted in 2008, allowed for all of the above to be used. The new federal rules omit vacuum systems in most cases and do not allow for emergency responder exceptions.
Part of the old Cal/OSHA regulations included 24-hour exemption for emergency aid workers who might have to cut, core, grind or otherwise disturb silica-producing materials (in the same way a construction worker would) in the course of saving a life. That is to mean, if the need to cut core or grind was an emergency and would last less than 24 hours, the silica-dust producing activities were exempted from usual regulations and necessary precautions to prevent inhalation on-site.
Carroll Wills, communications director for California Professional Firefighters, based in Sacramento, says, “At this point, CPF is still researching the details of the federal regulations and their impact on Cal/OSHA standards, as well as the practical impact they might have on emergency response. Until we understand these issues better, we can’t really offer a formal position.” He did, however, say in early January that this was the first he’d heard about the regulations.
Other professional emergency responder groups, such as Cal Fire and the California Association of Professional Firefighters, say much the same: They have had little to no inquiries on the subject, and most weren’t aware of the exemption, much less the federal changes. Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean does say that all Cal Fire emergency responders are given their own specialized masks and air bottles for work inside enclosed spaces — a strict practice that, at least for for Cal Fire, would cancel out the need for an exemption.
OSHA representative Mandy Kraft, of the U.S. Department of Labor Office of Public Affairs, says they were “aware of the California standard when it issued its silica rule” but that OSHA does not usually provide exemptions for emergency responders. The requests for rule changes made by California construction industry leaders to federal OSHA will probably not be considered and implemented by June 26, the date the new regulations come into effect; leaving some state employers in the dust.
There’s an ethical reason to follow safety measures on construction sites, but there’s also financial reasons. The first is obvious: It’s simply the right thing to do to take care of your employees and ensure their workplace safety. The second is that insurance rates can skyrocket for companies that have numerous on-site injuries and incidents. It’s worth the time and investment in safety training, in order to save tens of thousands of dollars, he says.
We spend a large portion of our lives at the office, so whether it’s having multiple evacuation routes out of your building or routinely checking cords and heaters, office safety is not something we should take for granted.