Anchorage fined nearly $80,000 for silica dust exposure on municipality’s buses

Driver blew the whistle on the issue after he and others began getting sick
City bus driver blew the whistle on potentially dangerous dust after he and others began getting sick
Published: Jun. 22, 2023 at 2:42 PM AKDT|Updated: Jun. 22, 2023 at 6:43 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The Municipality of Anchorage was fined tens of thousands of dollars for exposing bus drivers to potentially dangerous dust.

The settlement was part of an OSHA investigation into how airborne silica dust affected public transportation workers while on the job. A bus driver who has been with the municipality for nine years blew the whistle on the potentially dangerous dust that he and others were exposed to.

The dust comes from glacier silt that’s sprinkled on roadways to improve winter driving — but in the spring it becomes a real problem. One that the municipality failed to address and is now paying a hefty fine that will be passed on to taxpayers.

Timothy Hardesty wants everyone to see just how much dust has been collecting in the vents of municipality buses. He videoed an instance this spring when he entered a People Mover bus and banged on the ceiling vent, causing a shower of fine dust to fall to the floor.

“That’s ridiculous,” Hardesty is heard saying in the video.

“You open up that door with the dust flying like that it just, boom, straight into the bus and there’s nothing that you can do,” Hardesty said.

Hardesty says that dust has been circulating through the air and causing him, and others, some serious health issues.

“Every spring for the past nine years, I’ve contracted bronchitis,” Hardesty said. “There’s drivers that get chest infections on a regular basis.”

The fine silt is called silica dust — tiny quartz crystals that can be harmful when they become airborne and get inhaled. Hardesty says he told his supervisor about the problem last year, but nothing was done to address it. By last May he was at his wit’s end and called the state OSHA office to file a complaint.

Within days OSHA workers were at the municipality’s bus headquarters to begin testing.

“I think there’s about seven, seven bus runs that they were doing and four or five of them come back above the levels that are permissible without a respirator. And it’s done over an 8-hour period, whereas 70% of the drivers here are driving in excess of 10 hours, up to 15 hours,” Hardesty said.

“So there are some controls that they’re going to have to do now to reduce those levels and protect the workers,” industrial hygienist Martin Schwan said.

Schwan specializes in air quality control and reviewed OSHA’s report. He says silica is a known carcinogen that can be potentially deadly.

“Silica dust is a problem because it’s a very fine material that suspends, becomes airborne, we inhale it and it embeds deep into your lung tissue,” Schwan said.

Schwann says silica dust can be extremely serious if inhaled over a prolonged period of time.

“People develop COPD, they can develop lung cancer and it can ultimately lead to death,” Schwan said.

Alaska’s News Source contacted Jamie Acton, the director of Municipality of Anchorage Public Transportation. Her office is located at the bus headquarters.

She sent a statement saying in part, “We are working with the Alaska Department of Occupational Safety and Health to evaluate the results of the air monitoring, and to determine appropriate mitigation. The Municipality has provided proper masks for Transit employees since this issue was identified earlier this year.”

But the municipality was aware of the problems earlier than that. Documents from last September show the municipality was issued violations and fines originally totaling $169,919.00. An amount that was later reduced to about half that amount; $79,761.00.

Hardesty hopes a hefty fine like that will finally convince the municipality to clear the air once and for all.

Hardesty said passengers have also coughed and complained about the dust in and outside of the buses. The municipality told Alaska’s News Source it has begun some remediation efforts.

“Oh, they’re coughing on the bus and they’re covering their heads when the bus is pulling up,” Hardesty said. “At the end of a shift you blow your nose and nothing comes out but mud.”

The municipality would not confirm details of OSHA’s investigation.