Construction articles

Jeremy Martin
Jeremy Martin
Silica dust – does it really matter?
By Jeremy Martin

Respirable crystalline silica dust has been a hot subject in the industry for some years now. I first heard rumbles about updated OSHA standards in 2015 just as we were wrapping up a large project with a huge amount of cutting. It had curved walls, curved patio, curved pathways… hardly a straight line in sight!

That’s when our supplier stopped out and we briefly discussed the proposed OSHA standard changes. He said, “Maybe we’ll all need to start building square patios with no cuts!”

While I’ve since adopted some techniques to limit the number of cuts, I absolutely refused to allow some regulation to kill my creativity. Complex projects are our signature. So I soon started a journey to learn more about the issue and to find other ways to control dust.

First, what is silica?
Silica is the most common element on earth. It can be found in dirt, sand, stone, concrete – in short, about every material we encounter when hardscaping. Respirable crystalline silica dust is created when silica particles are crushed, ground, cut or drilled. This creates particles up to 100 times smaller than grains of sand at the beach. For the sake of brevity, I’ll refer to respirable crystalline silica simply as “silica dust” for this article.

Why does OSHA care about silica dust?
These tiny particles are still sharp and angular, and will cause tiny cuts in your lungs. This in turn creates scar tissue and can cause a condition called silicosis. It is irreversible, and typically occurs after 10 to 20 years of occupational exposure. In cases of extremely high levels of exposure, it can occur in a much shorter time.

Silica dust increases risk of lung cancer and other lung diseases such as COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). Exposure also increases the risk of kidney disease. Unfortunately, silicosis continues its progress even after the exposure has ended. That’s because the particles still remain in the lungs where they continue doing damage.

Why should contractors care about silica dust?
I think there are several good reasons to care about silica dust, starting with the “have-to” and ending with the more positive “want-to”!

  1. OSHA can and will put us out of business for non-compliance. Fines start at $8,065 per person exposed to silica dust. This isn’t just your crew; it’s also the homeowner, neighbor and other contractors who are exposed. This is just a starting point, there are other citations such as failure to abate, failure to provide PPE, failure to provide mandatory training, etc.

    The record fine to date is $304,000 to a contractor in West Virginia. Several contractors near Pittsburg were cited in 2018 with fines ranging from $20,000 to $200,000. I do not know any contractors willing to lose even $20K!

  2. Our workers deserve better. We have a legal, ethical and moral obligation to provide a safe workplace for our employees.

  3. Silica dust control can be an asset when recruiting and retaining quality employees. One of the best employees I ever had the privilege of hiring had chronic asthma. He started just a few weeks before our first dust collector was put into service. Could he have continued working for me without dust control? Perhaps, but that definitely would have increased his risk of an asthma attack.

  4. Silica dust control can be a sales tool. Clients are buying experiences, memories, and emotions when they invest in an outdoor living area. They want the experience of playing with gourmet grilling. They want the memories of late night laughs with friends and family. They want a space that makes them feel happy and secure; and yes, some probably want the “I-beat-the-Joneses” feeling too. The construction process can be a less than enjoyable experience for some clients, or even an ordeal to survive in order to get their patio.

What does silica dust control mean to me?
I spent 10 years cutting with no dust control. Only in the last few years of that first decade did we actually start wearing masks for the heaviest cutting. We did the typical macho way of dealing with dust. You know, cut with the direction of the wind. Or use the infamous tee shirt over the nose trick.

Even when wearing the mask, I didn’t feel great after a day of cutting. My chest hurt. I knew it wasn’t good for me, but considered it an inevitable part of the trade. I blew off my clothes before jumping in the truck. I tried to beat the dust off my pants before walking into my home. I washed my hair 3 times to get all the dust out. That was just the hardscaper’s life.

I’ve never had my lungs x-rayed. Judging by how I feel with just a little exposure to dust, they probably bear some scarring. To this day, wearing any kind of mask or respirator will make me sick. Certainly some damage has been done. Do I miss the old days of letting the dust fly? Not a chance!

What does dust control mean to my crew?
During one of our team meetings, we were discussing, “What makes Willow Gates Landscaping unique?” Two of the crew spoke up and mentioned dust control, and both said they would quit before working without dust control. Yes, it really does make a difference.

What does dust control mean to my clients?
Years ago, prior to dust control, I had a rather exacting client. We built a nice backyard getaway, complete with a patio, walkway, gazebo, and landscaping. At the completion, she said “You know, if I’d realized how much dust it would create, I don’t think I would do it again.” At the time, I just couldn’t fathom how somebody could look at a beautiful backyard and say it wasn’t worth the hassle of construction.

Nearly every hardscaper, if he’s honest, will admit there was at least a couple times in his career where the client or the neighbor complained about the dust drifting across their house or car. Dust control eliminates that. Our clients find our dust collection system intriguing, and they sure do appreciate the lack of dust.

I advise contractors to use dust control in their marketing. I think there are 3 distinct advantages that can be presented to the homeowner:

  1. Peace of mind knowing that their project won’t be shut down by OSHA. (This also creates some doubt in the client’s mind about the qualifications of contractors who don’t control dust.)

  2. No need to pressure wash their home after the project is complete.

  3. No irate neighbors screaming about the dust on their new patio or sports car.

You can sign up for the free online dust control training course at https://www.dustkiller.tools/7-step-plan-for-osha-safe-silica-control/. It’s a free resource that will help you understand how to comply with the silica standard.

Some of my favorite hashtags are #killthedust and #keeponcutting! Enjoy the year ahead of us; it looks like demand will continue to be extreme through this year. With all that cutting, I encourage you to at least use water for dust control. While I still much prefer vacuum for dust control, water is better than nothing!

Jeremy Martin co-founded Willow Gates Landscaping in 2005. He became an ICPI instructor in 2016, NCMA in 2018. He also founded Dust Killer Tools to help his company meet 2017 OSHA silica standards. Email Jeremy@DustKiller.tools. Visit WillowGatesLandscaping.com and DustKiller.tools