After more than two years of delay, the White House Office of Management and Budget has allowed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to move forward with a proposed rule aimed at cutting occupational exposure levels to silica dust in half.
Announced Aug. 23, 2013, OSHA’s proposed rule would set a permissible exposure limit (PEL) of 50 micrograms of respirable crystalline silica per cubic meter of air, averaged over an eight-hour day. The current PEL for quartz, the most common form of crystalline silica, is roughly 100 micrograms per cubic meter.
Overexposure to breathable crystalline silica causes an irreversible lung disease called silicosis. At least 1.7 million workers in the U.S. are potentially exposed to this hazard annually, according to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.
“Exposure to silica can be deadly, and limiting that exposure is essential,” said David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health. “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,” he said.
OSHA estimates that the proposed rule will result in saving nearly 700 lives per year and prevent 1,600 new cases of silicosis annually.
The proposed rulemaking includes two separate standards: one for general industry and maritime employment, and one for construction.
Occupational exposure to crystalline silica often occurs as part of common workplace operations involving cutting, sawing, drilling and crushing of concrete, brick, block, rock and stone. Activities historically associated with high rates of silicosis include sandblasting, sand-casting foundry operations, mining, tunneling, cement cutting, demolition, masonry work and granite cutting.
OSHA said the proposal is based on extensive review of scientific and technical evidence, consideration of current industry consensus standards and outreach by OSHA to stakeholders.
“The proposed rule uses common sense measures that will protect workers’ lives and lungs, like keeping the material wet so dust doesn’t become airborne,” said Michaels. “It is designed to give employers flexibility in selecting ways to meet the standard,” he said.
The proposal also includes provisions for measuring silica exposure, methods to reduce exposure, medical surveillance, and training workers about silica hazards.
OSHA estimates that its proposal will cost an average of $1,242 per workplace per year and provide $2.8 to $4.7 billion in average net benefits per year over the next 60 years.
The proposal will be published in a future issue of the Federal Register.
The agency will next solicit written comments on the rule and convene public hearings. The information-gathering phase will begin in March 2014, according to OSHA, with a final rule not expected for years. OSHA encourages stakeholders to participate in development of the rule by submitting comments and participating in the hearings. “Your input will help OSHA develop a rule that ensures healthy working conditions for employees and is feasible for employers,” the agency said.
The announcement was long-awaited by labor unions and safety advocates.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka praised OSHA for proposing the new limits, saying enforcing current rules won’t protect workers.
“The current OSHA silica standard was adopted decades ago and fails to protect workers,” he said. “It allows very high levels of exposure and has no requirements to train workers or monitor exposure levels.”
The American Industrial Hygiene Association and the American Society of Safety Engineers both released statements expressing support for the rule.
Tom O’Connor, executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, said in a statement that “When this rule goes into effect, hundreds of thousands of workers will benefit from increased protections from entirely preventable silica-related disease. Workers in industries exposed to silica dust include some of the country’s most vulnerable workers. Low-wage immigrant workers and temporary workers are disproportionally represented in the industries with silica exposure and are the most vulnerable to retaliation should they report potential hazards, injuries or illnesses.”
Industry groups have lobbied against the proposal, questioning its feasibility and noting that silicosis deaths have declined significantly since initial PELs were established in 1971.
Mark Ellis, president of the National Industrial Sand Association, issued a statement in which he promised his organization will work with OSHA on the proposed rule but disagreed with the lower PEL. “We agree with OSHA’s mandating dust monitoring and medical surveillance,” Ellis said, but “because our companies have successfully protected their workers under the current permissible exposure limit, we do not believe there is a proven need to lower that level and disagree with OSHA’s proposal to cut that limit in half.”
Associated Builders and Contractors, representing the construction industry, have cautioned against the economic and technological feasibility of compliance with the proposed changes.
The American Petroleum Institute, the main lobbying group for the oil and gas industry, said it was still reviewing the proposed silica rules.
Additional information on the proposed rule, including a video, procedures for submitting comments and the public hearings can be found at www.osha.gov/silica.
Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.
Follow him on Twitter @SHRMRoy.
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