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Foundries worry about tougher silica controls

08 Apr 2014


Foundry industry executives in the US say they could be forced out of business if the federal government adopts tougher regulations aimed at reducing worker exposure to crystalline silica dust.

The issue has pitted at least one Wisconsin foundry against worker-safety advocates from Milwaukee in public hearings held in Washington, D.C., by the federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration.

It could affect other businesses, too, including mines, quarries and manufacturing plants where workers are exposed to sand particles in the air as part of the production process.

OSHA has proposed cutting the allowed exposure limit to crystalline silica, which is found in sand, in half - to 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air. The change is meant to reduce the risk of life-threatening lung diseases that can result from breathing contaminated air.

The standard for silica dust exposure in the workplace was set in the early 1970s and is long overdue for an update, said James Schultz, a workplace safety consultant from Milwaukee who testified Tuesday at the OSHA hearing.

"It's based on very old testing methods, and it uses some confusing ways of measuring silica exposure depending on what type of job you're doing. Two people could be exposed to the same amount of silica, but because of the way the exposure rates are calculated, one of them may not be required to have extra protection," Schultz said in an interview.

Silica exposure remains a serious threat to nearly 2 million U.S. workers, including more than 100,000 in high risk jobs such as abrasive blasting, foundries, stone cutting, rock drilling, quarry work and tunneling, according to OSHA.

"Honestly, a lot of times in the workplace you are told to man up and don't worry about it. A lot of workers may suspect something is wrong, because they're having a hard time breathing, and they don't realize it's the beginning stages of a terminal lung disease," said Schultz, a former foundry worker.

Foundry industry officials say the proposed OSHA requirements would force companies to close and eliminate thousands of jobs.

"The requirements in OSHA's proposed silica rule are overly burdensome and not achievable for the foundry industry. They will significantly impair U.S. foundries' ability to compete in a global economy, force foundries to go out of business and others to shift production offshore," Peter Mark, an executive with Grede Holdings Inc., testified before OSHA.

Grede, based in Southfield, Mich., has four foundries in Wisconsin and 1,350 employees at six facilities in the state. OSHA said Monday that it proposed a $50,600 fine against Grede for allegedly failing to evaluate worker exposure to crystalline silica dust at its Browntown foundry. A similar violation was cited at the Browntown plant in 2012, according to OSHA, which noted that the company paid $133,000 in penalties following an inspection.

Grede does casting, machining and assembling of iron components up to 2,000 pounds. The company says it's the largest independent operator of iron foundries in North America, with more than 4,300 employees, and it's a key supplier to the automotive, truck and heavy equipment industries.

Grede said it spent nearly $1million experimenting with engineering practices, including several recommendations by OSHA, at the Browntown plant. Employees are protected from silica dust through the use of respirators, according to the company.

The proposed change in OSHA regulations would greatly increase the amount of air quality testing in a foundry without any significant benefit, Mark testified.

"There is a severe underestimation of the cost to install and run additional (dust) collection systems," he said.

The foundry industry is integral to the U.S. economy as 90% of all manufactured goods incorporate castings into their makeup or use castings during their production. There's no technology available to eliminate the need for silica sand from the casting process, according to the American Foundry Society, based in Schaumburg, Ill.

The proposed OSHA requirements would result in annual costs equivalent to about 10% of the foundry industry's revenue, the trade association says.

A more acceptable solution would be for OSHA to better enforce the silica exposure rule, said Al Spada, spokesman for the American Foundry Society.

The ultimate goal should be for foundries to use engineered controls, such as dust control systems, so that employees don't have to wear protective masks to do their jobs, said Ken Kurek, president and CEO of Waukesha Foundry in Waukesha.

"We are taking a 'wait and see' attitude about the proposal ... but we are not going to expose our employees to anything above the silica level allowed by law, even if the allowable level is lowered," Kurek said.

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