Silicosis hits home

Journeyman pointer-caulker-cleaner Mark Roddy, left, works with an apprentice to rebuild a wall outside the Oregon AFL-CIO office.
Journeyman pointer-caulker-cleaner Mark Roddy, left, works with an apprentice to rebuild a wall outside the Oregon AFL-CIO office.

Journeyman bricklayer Mark Roddy was having trouble breathing. Common colds would linger, and lead to wheezing. Last July, when a cold worsened into what appeared to be pneumonia and bronchitis, he went to the hospital in Newport, Oregon, at his wife’s insistence. A chest X-ray showed something worse: silicosis.

Silicosis — the world’s oldest known occupational disease — is caused by breathing in crystalline silica particles from grinding, cutting or drilling rock, brick, or cement. The microscopic particles are as sharp as glass, and cause scarring in lung tissue. The most common version of the disease can take 10 to 30 years to develop.

Roddy, 58, has worked 38 years on the “restoration” side of the bricklayer trade as a pointer/caulker/cleaner.

“Pointer-caulker-cleaners are the ones that eat more dirt,” Roddy says. “In the restoration world, you cut out a lot of mortar joints, and you wear a respirator, but you’re always in a cloud of dust.”

Today, Roddy teaches his trade full-time at Angell Job Corps Center in Yachats — and he spent 13 years teaching apprentices in Bricklayers Local 1 at its Portland Joint Apprenticeship Training Center. How to avoid breathing in silica dust is a big part of the training, so Roddy teaches students to use vacuum attachments on grinders, and water hoses attached to saws that are used to cut concrete blocks. But it wasn’t always that way.

“When I started in 1978, we were cutting concrete blocks dry with a paper mask at best, and you turned the saw whichever way the wind was blowing,” Roddy said.

And there were jobs where even a respirator wasn’t enough.

“I relined lime kilns,” Roddy says. “Bricklayers will all know what I’m talking about. It’s called refractory work. It’s horrible work. You’re in a 14-foot tube, 100 feet long, relining it with a couple layers of high-strength ceramic. You’re in there with a jackhammer for 12-hour shifts, in bad air. I wore respirators, but I was in such high concentrations of dust, that even if you’re in a respirator, you’re still getting dosed pretty bad.”

Roddy thinks all that took a toll. So far, he says, his silicosis appears to be a mild case. He’s an avid mountain-climber, skier, kayaker, and motorcyclist, and says he’s not ready to give that up. But his condition is also irreversible and has no cure.

“My lungs are compromised, and I know it. I feel it. I’m going to have to seek more medical attention. And it’s not going to go away.”

Roddy says if he has one message for his fellow construction workers, it’s this: Take dust seriously.

“I have silicosis from a very dust-filled career, but I wore a respirator, and I was conscious of it. I was not somebody that just put a bandanna over my face.”

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