OSHA’s new silica standard for construction has been in effect since June 23, 2016 and has a fast approaching compliance date of June 23, 2017. The standard contains a key requirement for construction employers to designate a “silica competent person” – an individual who is capable of identifying existing and foreseeable respirable crystalline silica hazards in the workplace and who is authorized to take prompt corrective measures to eliminate or minimize them.
The LHSFNA has been a longtime supporter of including strong competent person requirements in the new standard. We called for it in Lifelines back in 2014 and then testified about its importance during OSHA’s silica hearings later that year.
“The competent person is a crucial part of protecting workers and complying with the new standard,” says LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni. “These designated workers and supervisors are tasked with key responsibilities that will help ensure their fellow workers are not exposed to harmful levels of silica.”
These responsibilities include:
- Making frequent and regular inspections of jobsites, materials and equipment
- Being capable of recognizing and evaluating situations where hazardous silica exposures may be occurring
- Knowing how to evaluate exposure potential and understanding the hazards and routes of silica exposure
- Making an initial recommendation on how to control the exposure and evaluating the effectiveness of controls in place to protect potentially exposed workers
Another major responsibility of the silica competent person is implementing the written exposure control plan. This plan should explain exposure scenarios, provide directions for how to work in the most protective manner (e.g., use wet cutting and local exhaust, wear respirators), communicate protection requirements (e.g., offer medical testing) and serve to inform medical providers about employee exposure. It’s important that all this information is included so that workers can refer to this plan for guidance. OSHA does not require the plan to be site specific, but it inevitably should be to meet the requirements of the standard.
Silica competent persons play a vital role in reducing exposures because approximately 85 percent of silica-affected workers are in construction and most of these workers have a high potential for hazardous overexposure. The competent person’s role also involves coordinating with other trades, subcontractors and the client.
It’s common for all competent person tasks to be assigned by default to a single superintendent, lead foreman or senior worker on a jobsite. Employers should, however, choose the most suitable person (or persons) at each jobsite to serve as the competent person for each regulation that requires one. It’s perfectly acceptable to have multiple OSHA competent persons on a jobsite who each oversee a different regulation. On larger jobsites, where there is often a need to cover multiple shifts or a need for timely coordination with other trades, employers can assign multiple silica competent persons to provide overlap, increase support at the start of a new project and oversee use of regulated materials.
To make the “frequent and regular inspections of jobsites” that the standard requires, the competent person should be someone who is on site with the crew and in a position to move around and observe tasks involving respirable crystalline silica during the work shift. The silica competent person should understand the materials, equipment and processes. While the knowledge and skill of a competent person doesn’t need to match that of a certified industrial hygienist, the assigned person should be able to assist with hazard assessments, monitoring exposures and designing controls.
Employers must train silica competent persons in the written exposure control plan and on modifications to the hazard communication program on silica and updated labeling. Beyond that, it’s up to each employer to develop their own training systems. It’s in employers’ best interest to go beyond this minimum training to reduce further liabilities. By officially designating a competent person, employers are vouching for their suitability to perform the tasks required by the regulation for the assigned jobsite.
[Travis Parsons is the LHSFNA’s Associate Director of Occupational Safety & Health.]