Settlement Reached on Hex Chrome Suit

In response to a lawsuit filed by three labor groups after OSHA did not include portland cement exposure in its April 2006 hexavalent chromium standard, the federal agency has agreed to inspect work sites for worker exposure to the compound.

On April 6, OSHA reached a settlement with AFL-CIO's Building Construction Trades Department (BCTD), the Laborers' International Union of North America and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters requiring the agency's compliance officers to ensure that employers using portland cement are following regulations for safe working procedures.

Per the agreement, compliance officers will evaluate whether proper washing facilities and supplies, personal protective equipment, access to material safety data sheets, adequate worker training and accurate injury and illness recordkeeping are in place, according to BCTD.

The settlement agreement also requires OSHA compliance officers throughout the nation to indicate clearly on their reports whenever they inspect a construction site where portland cement is being used. This, BCTD says, will allow OSHA and BCTD to determine how well OSHA is complying with the terms of the settlement agreement in the coming years and permit monitoring of employer compliance with the applicable regulations.

OSHA to Issue Guidance Document

As a result of the settlement, OSHA will issue a new document providing specific enforcement procedures for compliance officers to follow at all construction sites where employees are working with portland cement. The document – Portland Cement Inspection Procedures – will explain how existing OSHA standards and requirements (air contaminants, personal protective equipment, sanitation, hazard communication and recordkeeping) apply to operations involving portland cement and collects all of the applicable provisions in a single inspection checklist.

The agency said that the document will be published as Appendix C-1 to the OSHA compliance directive on the chromium (VI) standards (Cr[VI] directive) to be issued to regional administrators later this year. While the Cr(VI) directive has not yet been finalized, OSHA said it is forwarding the document to regional administrators and state designees in advance for immediate action.

Rather than requiring OSHA to amend the hex chrome standard, the settlement commits OSHA to enforce existing regulations that provide construction workers with the same protections they would have gained under the new standard, according to BCTD.

“Ultimately, the real winners are the workers because they will have the level of protection on the job that the regulations were meant to secure almost 40 years ago,” said BCTD President Edward Sullivan. “All the standards in our settlement agreement that employers must meet have been on the books, so it’s nothing new for contractors. But OSHA now must see that employers comply with the regulations.”

Union: Portland Cement as Hazardous as Hex Chrome

The unions have spend considerable time in the rulemaking process submitting evidence and giving testimony on the negative health effects of hex chrome, according to BCTD. Not only can exposure to hexavalent chromium lead to career-ending health effects such as allergic contact dermatitis – a skin disease so severe that workers are unable to work with cement – but exposure to portland cement can cause some health hazards of its own.

“When wet, portland cement is highly caustic and can cause cracking and thickening of skin when workers are exposed,” said Pete Stafford, BCTD safety and health director. “Prolonged exposure can cause severe caustic burns and can damage the skin so much that the worker requires skin grafts or even limb amputation.”

Dry portland cement causes similar skin problems when it comes in contact with the skin, Stafford said. Inhaling large quantities of dry portland cement during terrazzo work, work-site mixing of concrete and mixing mortar can cause severe lung hazards. The settlement agreement requires OSHA compliance officers to make sure workers performing these tasks are not overexposed to airborne dusts.

“When safety procedures aren’t followed, hex chrome and other chemicals in portland cement can put people out of work,” said Sullivan, “and no one wants that – not employers, not the government and certainly not workers or unions.”

According to OSHA, the settlement agreement does not apply in the 22 states and territories with OSHA-approved state occupational safety and health plans in the private sector. However, the agency said it strongly encourages these states to implement the new document.

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