OSHA Releases Silica Rule

OSHA has said the proposed rule "would bring protections into the 21st century" because it currently enforces 40-year-old permissible exposure limits for crystalline silica in general industry, construction, and shipyards.

U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez and Dr. David Michaels, the OSH assistant secretary, are scheduled to brief news media representatives March 24 on OSHA's newly released silica rule. OSHA has been working on the proposed rule for years and published an NPRM on Sept. 12, 2013, then considered more than 2,000 comments and held 14 days of public hearings.

The National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH) and other organizations that have pushed for this rule to be enacted, welcomed it immediately. "Workers across America can breathe easier today," said National COSH Acting Executive Director Jessica Martinez. "We've known for decades that silica dust is deadly. With new common-sense rules in place to limit exposure, we can save lives and reduce suffering from silicosis, cancer and other life-threatening diseases."

The rule will cut the permissible exposure limit (PEL) for silica dust to 50 micrograms of silica per cubic meter of air, averaged over an eight-hour day -- a limit two to five times lower than the current PEL.

Two standards are in the final rule; they will take effect June 23, 2016, and affected industries have varying amounts of time to come into compliance with most requirements:

  • Construction: June 23, 2017
  • General industry and maritime: June 23, 2018
  • Hydraulic fracturing: June 23, 2018 (for all provisions except engineering controls, for which the compliance date is June 23, 2021)

"Decades in the making, OSHA's new silica rule will better protect millions of workers from a highly toxic, cancer-causing substance that has killed thousands while the rule slowly worked its way through the regulatory gauntlet, administration after administration. Today, in quarries, foundries, building sites, and kitchen rehab jobs across the country, workers can look forward to breathing cleaner air," said Center for Progressive Reform Executive Director Matt Shudtz. "But today's announcement is far from the end of the story. Next comes the inevitable litigation. Following their tired playbook, special interest groups will beg a court to put a hold on the rule, hoping to delay or undo it. Workers have waited long enough for this rule. It is high time industry made an investment in the future by establishing the protections this rule requires. Investing now in tools and policies to better protect workers will save hundreds of lives every year. That's not just a number; these are real people who will not have to suffer the pain and indignity of gasping for breath simply because they went to work at a job where the hazards of silica dust were ignored because OSHA's outdated standard required so little of their employers."

NIOSH's Howard said the new rule matches what NIOSH recommended way back in 1974. For too long, employers opposed to a lower PEL would say, "It's just dust," Howard said. "Well, no, no, no -- it's silica. Our surveillance scientists still count cases that occur today that we hope this new rule will prevent."

OSHA's Michaels said the previous PEL was out of date at the time when it was promulgated, allowing unnecessarily harmful worker exposures to silica dust for decades. "We commit ourselves to finishing the rule within the final term of President Obama," he said. He also called the rule a "huge milestone."

"This is a great victory and a step forward towards safer workplaces," agreed Javier Garcia Hernandez, a construction worker and former consultant for the Philadelphia Area Project on Occupational Safety and Health. "Safety advocates worked for years to get this rule in place. Controlling silica dust is especially important to immigrant workers and other vulnerable groups, who are often assigned the dirtiest, most dangerous jobs on any work site," he said.

Perez, announcing the rule at the International Masonry Institute in Bowie, Md., thanked numerous people in the audience, including NIOSH Director Dr. John Howard and former OSHA chief Charles Jeffress (his tenure lasted from November 1997 to January 2001), whom Perez thanked for working on the silica rulemaking. "Today is a very important day," Perez said. "One of the reasons we came here is this is really a partnership between labor and management."

On the other hand, the National Industrial Sand Association's president announced that the association does not support the lower PEL because it is not necessary to protect workers. "The major reason silicosis is still a threat to worker health is not because the mandated exposure limit is too high, it is because of the level of compliance among industry is too low," said Mark Ellis. "The major impact of OSHA's new rule is not the change in the permissible exposure limit. It is that it will for the first time require employers to regularly monitor the level of silica exposure in their workplaces and the health of their employees to ensure companies are doing what is necessary to protect workers. That is long overdue." NISA also said the exposure monitoring and medical surveillance provisions in OSHA's new rule are similar to its own occupational health program, which is more than 30 years old and has eliminated silicosis from its member sand companies' workplaces under the current exposure limit. In testimony at an OSHA public hearing in March 2014, NISA urged the agency to adopt a standard that would require exposure monitoring and medical surveillance at an action level of 50 micrograms per cubic meter but maintain the current PEL of 100 micrograms.

"Our next step is to make sure workers and employers know how to control silica dust at the work site," said Peter Dooley, a health and safety project consultant at National COSH. "That means training and materials provided in language workers can understand. It also means informing workers about their right to a safe and healthy workplace – and the actions they can take to enforce their rights."

OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs cleared the rule March 21.

OSHA has said the proposed rule "would bring protections into the 21st century" because it currently enforces 40-year-old permissible exposure limits for crystalline silica in general industry, construction, and shipyards. Inhaling respirable crystalline silica exposes workers to the risk of silicosis, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and kidney disease.

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