KPA, a risk management firm, and the National Automobile Dealers Association earlier this year conducted testing to demonstrate to federal officials that a body shop’s workers aren’t in any danger from fine silica particles.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has proposed raising the limits of crystalline silica allowed in a workplace to a flat 50 micograms per cubic meter of air. The existing limit, enacted in 1971, fluctuates depending on a variety of equations an employer must complete* (though OSHA does provide a tool for calculating the answers.
The dust when inhaled can cause COPD, lung cancer, kidney disease or silicosis, according to OSHA. The agency predicts the new rule could save 700 lives a year and calls the existing limits “outdated, inconsistent between industries, and do not adequately protect worker health.”
“Exposure to silica can be deadly, and limiting that exposure is essential,” occupational safety Assistant Secretary of Labor Dr. David Michaels said in a 2013 statement accompanying the proposed regulation’s announcement. “Every year, exposed workers not only lose their ability to work, but also to breathe. This proposal is expected to prevent thousands of deaths from silicosis-an incurable and progressive disease-as well as lung cancer, other respiratory diseases and kidney disease. We’re looking forward to public comment on the proposal.”
Eric Schmitz, vice president of EHS products at KPA, said it’s “pretty easy to be below” the existing OSHA limits. But to ensure a collision repair exemption from the new rules, his company in conjunction with NADA tested 10 collision centers, finding that all fell below the new proposed limits. NADA tested
“The data does not support including them (body shops),” Schmitz said.
One shop came back higher than expected, he said, but still “well below” the 50-microgram proposed limit.
“They were doing street repair at the time that we did the sampling,” Schmitz said, and it’s possible that dust from that work entered the shop and increased the workplace silica level.
“Our highest level was well, well, well under the PEL,” said Lauren Bailey, NADA manager of state law and regulatory initiatives, who worked on the testing of those 10 facilities and others submitted by NADA to OSHA after the agency floated the idea of an exemption and sought data to support it.
NADA jumped at the chance, according to Bailey, who said it’s much harder to get an exemption after the fact.
“The fact that OSHA even offered it means they are considering it,” she said, a good sign for the industry.
The NADA-KPA testing included both dealerships and independent collision repairers, she said.
The particles can be thrown off by those working with concrete, stone and brick, for example, which has made the proposal much more controversial for industries such as construction work and masonry, Bailey said.
But in collision repair, it’s much rarer to find anything which even emits enough silica particles to be noticed, according to Bailey, and that’s not likely to change even with new materials like carbon fiber-reinforced polymers.
Body filler, some pre-1980 paints, dry sanders — that’s about it, and still unlikely to produce enough to matter at either regulatory concentration unless you worked on a car completely slathered in Bondo, Bailey joked.
Why it matters anyway
So why should repairers still care about the exclusion?
“If you’re not excluded from the reg, then you are responsible,” Schmitz said. “… You’d rather be excluded from the reg altogether.”
Inclusion in the rule wouldn’t require any extra effort on the part of collision repairers — such as paying for testing or submitting paperwork to OSHA proving compliance, according to Schmitz and Bailey.
However, an OSHA inspector could still check if silica was below the proposed level, and if “background noise” such as the street repairs or the silica in a beachfront environment happened to work its way into the sample, an employer could still have a difficult time with the feds, according to Bailey. There’s also the chance an employee working on a side project in the shop could be “doing something weird” to generate the dust, Schmitz said.
“I’d rather be exempt,” Schmitz said, pointing out that OSHA inspectors could be particularly unforgiving during the first year of a new test.
Schmitz said another concern if shops weren’t excluded would be fearmongering vendors hawking safety equipment, vaccum systems and other preventative measures to shops who didn’t realize that they likely were in compliance already.
Bailey predicted it would be a long time before an answer came on the silica proposal.
“There’s a lot of drama associated with this rulemaking,” Bailey said.
Fortunately, the “contentious” part of the process hasn’t involved the collision repair industry.
“We are just a teeny tiny part,” Bailey said.
Bailey testified herself at the OSHA hearings, and “we were not the main card event,” she said. Other days had seen speakers questioned by the OSHA panel and audience members.
But by the time it was her turn, it was “me in an empty room” except for a few OSHA employees and the administrative law judge.
“I got no questions,” she said.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Aug. 23, 2013
PEL (respirable fraction) = 10 ÷ [% quartz + (% cristobalite × 2) + (% tridymite × 2) + 2]
PEL (total dust) = 30 ÷ [% quartz + (% cristobalite × 2) + (% tridymite × 2) + 2]
Exposure = [(mg/m3(1) × time(1)) + (mg/m3(2) × time(2)) + … + (mg/m3(n) × time(n))] ÷ 480 minutes