Tool manufacturers have seen a big boost in sales on products designed to meet recent federal regulations to reduce workers’ exposure to crystalline silica dust.
And solutions that involve a vacuum attached to the tool to extract dust appear to be leading the charge.
“Demand in the market has skyrocketed,” Eric Hollister, Hilti senior director of electric tools and accessories, says of vacuum solutions for a variety of handheld tools.
OSHA’s silica regulations took effect September 23, leading contractors to buy vacuums and related attachments for drills, saws, grinders and other devices to prevent silica dust from entering the air and workers’ lungs. Silica is found in concrete, brick and stone and has been linked to the lung disease silicosis, lung cancer and other respiratory illnesses when airborne.
“It’s asbestos version 2,” says Kevin Gee, Milwaukee Tool senior product manager. “A couple of decades ago, we had asbestos identified that, if you got exposed to it and it was airborne, you got things like mesothelioma.
“Now it’s silica – you get silicosis.”
Leading up to the rules, which OSHA says will prevent 900 silicosis cases a year, tool manufacturers began introducing a variety of products. But it wasn’t until just before and after the rules took effect that sales began to rise significantly and achieve broader market appeal.
The first wave of sales came from large contractors who realized the rules weren’t going to be delayed any longer.
“When September became very real, the August rush was insane,” says Ricky Cacchiotti, senior product manager concrete products for DeWalt. “We saw a lot of the large contractors tool up.”
Along with fearing OSHA fines, those contractors wanted to be prepared to bid on government and large industrial projects that would require more stringent dust reduction.
“It’s literally written on the board as you walk onto the jobsite,” says Gee of large construction projects. “So before, there’s things for slips, trips and falls, how to use ladders properly; they are now starting to call out the OSHA dust regulation and being compliant.”
Some contractors, however, waited to see whether the regulations might be overturned on appeal. But now most have realized the regulations are here to stay, tool companies say.
“Across the country, they’re starting to see enforcement from both OSHA and, more notably, from the larger general contractors,” Hollister says. “The general contractors who are responsible for the full site are basically saying to the subs, we expect that you can provide us with an exposure control plan for the work … and prove that your people are fully compliant.”
Engineering a solution
In rolling out new products to reduce silica dust, manufacturers have focused on the OSHA regulations’ Table 1, which outlines the types of equipment that will yield compliance for a variety of tasks, or they rely on “objective data” requirements. If companies meet the Table 1 requirements, they don’t have to perform worksite air monitoring. With objective data, the construction firm has to provide written proof the tool complies. Manufacturers offer this objective data on their websites.
That promise of easier compliance is driving sales of dust extraction devices for such handheld tools as drills, jackhammers, chipping tools, grinders, impact and rotary hammers, and saws for cutting fiber-cement board.
“Before, dust extraction was purely a productivity play. If you’re drilling holes overhead or cutting in concrete, you don’t want the dust cloud in your face,” says Gee. “…Now with the dust regulations and the government’s mandating that you have to contain that silica down to 50 micrograms per cubic meter, ultimately it is going to cause people to go out and buy equipment that they weren’t previously purchasing.”
The main ingredients for much of the Table 1 tool compliance are the tool with a dust shroud or hood and a vacuum.
“Vacuums are the core that we saw go fast,” Hollister says of Hilti dustless products, “but also the various shrouds and guards that go along with those different applications went from a niche use, depending on the safety environment of the individual contractor, to broad use and demand.”
Hilti has released its VC series of vacuums, which can be used for dry applications such as drilling and hammering and wet applications that involve removing slurry, such as coring. The VC 150 models offer 150 cubic feet per minute and 6- or 10-gallon capacity, and the VC 300-17 X offers 300 cfm and capacity of 17 gallons. The VC 150 and VC 300 models also feature automatic filter cleaning.
The company also recently launched its WMS 100 water management system for diamond coring. The system recirculates 4 gallons of water between it and the core rig. This requires no refilling of water during the day. The system also separates any slurry and collects it in a bag, which is then thrown in the trash. This prevents the user from having to clean up any slurry, which can also help comply with the silica rules, Hollister says.
Milwaukee Tool has seen many of its customers transition to tools with integrated dust-removal systems.
“We’ve seen a lot of switch-over from our rotary hammer kits to the kits with the vacuum included with it,” Gee says. “A lot of users are finding they just don’t want to risk it. It’s a big fine if they get caught not using the proper equipment.”
Fines are $12,934 per “serious” violation; $12,934 per day for failure to fix the problem; and up to $129,336 for repeated or “willful” violations, according to OSHA.
One of Milwaukee Tool’s top sales drivers has been its M18 Fuel 1-inch SDS Plus Rotary Hammer with a 2712-DE Dedicated Dust Extractor, Gee says.
“That’s our workhorse,” he says. “That covers 85 to 90 percent of the applications for rotary drilling for all of our core trades.”
The extractor connects to the hammer and is powered by it. It also features adjustable depth stop and ruler, and a high-capacity dust box requiring less emptying.
The company’s 8960 dust extractor vacuum has been popular for larger drilling operations.
The 8-gallon extractor has an automatic filter-cleaning mechanism that helps maintain consistent air flow and suction at 148 cubic feet per minute, the company says. The vacuum can also be stopped and started via the power tool.
DeWalt also reports a sales lift with its dustless products, especially its DCH273P2DHO 1-inch Brushless SDS Rotary Hammer. It has built-in dust extraction, so no need to hook up to an outside vacuum. The lightweight hammer with vibration control is geared toward overhead drilling. The dust extraction continues for 2 seconds after the drill is shut off. The dust box is clear and high-capacity.
DeWalt has also seen increased sales of its DWH050 large hammer dust extraction and hole-cleaning kit, which fits on any tool brand, Cacchiotti says. It has two interchangeable drilling heads, one for holes up to 1-1/2 inches and one for holes up to 2 inches. “We have a tremendous number of guys who already owned existing bits and didn’t want to lose their inventory,” he says.
Cacchiotti says DeWalt focused on Table 1 compliance rather than objective data when developing products. “We refused to go objective data,” he says. “DeWalt is Table 1 compliance or nothing.”
Bosch reports across-the-board sales increases of its silica products, according to Jim Bohn, director of strategic development for power tools for North America. The sales depend on the needs of the buyer, with some needing to add an attachment and vacuum, while others may need new tools, as well.
“You don’t see one category higher than the other, but obviously any brand with a specific strength in a category will see a slightly higher rise than other categories,” Bohn says.
The company’s VAC090A dust extractor is capable of wet and dry pickup and has a 9-gallon capacity. It automatically cleans its filter every 15 seconds. The tool can be plugged directly into the extractor, so there’s no need for a second extension cord.
Of the products sought for silica compliance, Bohn says, vacuums will likely be contractors’ biggest expense.
“The largest investment that they have to make when comparing an attachment to a vacuum dollar-wise is the vacuum,” he says. “Many people had to purchase vacuums. That would be the biggest change that people had to do because they had the tools and accessories before.”
Sales expected to continue rising
Along with providing new products to comply with the silica regulations, tool manufacturers have spent the last couple of years trying to educate the construction industry about the OSHA regulations and providing training for their dustless tools.
For some, the transition is taking some getting used to.
“It’s expensive for them to become compliant,” Gee explains, “and you’re changing the way they do their work on a daily basis.”
But tool companies are also seeing more construction firms catching on.
“By now most people have accepted it,” says Bohn. “They don’t have a choice. The only other choice they have is to pay the fines or to get shut down.”
Bohn also notes that 28 states are developing or have developed their own silica regulations. OSHA allows states to enact their own silica requirements if they are at least as stringent as the federal regulations. Some states still have not said when their rules will take effect.
So as construction firms continue to transition to the federal regulations and state requirements take effect, demand should keep rising in 2018 as more companies realize they have to comply.
“That ramp-up will probably continue this year and then it will start to level off,” Bohn says. “But it will be a sustainable sales volume because it’s required now.”
Hollister predicts a good year for silica dust products as more construction companies realize the need to comply with the regulations.
“I think in 2018 you will start to see the industry as a whole get serious about compliance,” he says, “and see a lot more concerted effort broadly across the market.”