Regular dust monitoring can help prevent silicosis - not more regulation

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The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) proposal under White House review would reportedly set a new significantly lower permissible limit for workers’ exposure to silica, one of the most abundant naturally occurring minerals on earth.  As sand on the beach, silica is harmless, but in the form of tiny crystalline silica particles in the air breathed in by workers, it can cause silicosis, a potentially disabling and sometimes fatal lung disease.

There is no question that silicosis is a completely preventable occupational disease, and there is also no question that responsible companies should do everything necessary to protect their workers. The real question -- what is the best way to do that?

Most of industry has taken a position that no new regulation is necessary, but the country’s leading industrial sand producers, which have the longest history of working with silica, believe doing nothing is not an option.

The companies of the National Industrial Sand Association (NISA), which I represent, agree with our friends in labor that we must do more to protect workers. However, we also strongly believe there is a better or “smarter” way to do that than lowering an exposure limit that has a history of noncompliance and little government enforcement.

A smarter approach to preventing silicosis is for OSHA to require employers to conduct regular dust monitoring of their workplaces, implement dust controls needed to comply with the current exposure limit, and adopt medical surveillance programs to identify silica-related disease and halt its progression. In our experience, doing so will prevent new disease.

We know this approach works because this is what the companies in our association did voluntarily more than 30 years ago and our Occupational Health Program has resulted in the virtual eradication of silicosis from the generation of workers hired by our companies since the program began.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), deaths from silicosis have fallen 93 percent in the United States since 1968, but thousands of the approximately 1.7 million Americans working in manufacturing, construction, and anything that involves breaking up rock, brick or concrete, continue to be over-exposed to silica in the workplace.

The predominant industry position is that the best way to protect workers is stronger enforcement of the existing limit, but everyone knows OSHA doesn’t have the resources to do that. Government data shows that approximately 30 percent of the air samples OSHA collects from workplaces exceed the current silica exposure limit.

This means that irresponsible companies know they can flout the law, whatever it is, and likely get away with it. Right now, companies with high levels of silica dust in the air their workers breathe are not even explicitly required by regulation to test that air for silica dust. That needs to change.

Increased enforcement is only part of the answer. A new rule that mandates regular monitoring of the silica dust workers are exposed to and medical surveillance of the health of their lungs will make it more difficult for irresponsible employers to skirt the current law and put their workers at risk.

Labor and some public health advocates claim the best way to protect workers is to cut the limit of permissible exposure to crystalline silica in half. Yet, if 30 percent of the samples OSHA now collects are not in compliance with the current permissible exposure limit, how many would NOT comply with a limit that is half of that?  Sixty percent?

The cost of lowering the current exposure limit is an estimated $5 and-a-half billion a year and would do little or nothing to provide safer workplaces.  The costs to implement the NISA solution would be only a fraction of that cost.

The industrial sand producers’ approach to smart regulation is not based on assumptions or prognostications, but on real life experience of more than 30 years backed up with real data. It has resulted in the virtual eradication of new cases of silicosis in our workplaces and is a model of “smart regulation” that achieves the ultimate goal of protecting American workers.

Ellis is president of the National Industrial Sand Association.