Proposed OSHA standards on silica fail to promote worker health

Tightening workplace standards in place since 1971, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is proposing a new standard on silica exposure. Silica refers to very small particles at least 100 times smaller than ordinary sand created during work operations (e.g., cutting, sawing, grinding, drilling, and crushing) involving stone, rock, concrete, brick, block, mortar, and industrial sand. Silica exposure may cause fatal illnesses such as the lung disease silicosis.

Unfortunately, OSHA fails to adequately enforce current standards. Until it finds a way to ensure that businesses follow the current rules for protecting workers, a more stringent limit on silica exposure likely will not help improve worker safety.

OSHA is proposing a permissible exposure limit (PEL) of 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air, thus halving the silica exposure allowed for general industry and maritime workers—and reducing it by 80 percent for those in the construction industry. OSHA claims this stricter standard will eventually save 700 lives and prevent 1,600 new cases of silicosis per year.

However, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reports that as much as 40 percent of OSHA-collected silica samples exceed current standards in the construction industry. OSHA itself admits that many workers are currently exposed to silica in excess of five times the proposed PEL of 50, and multiples of current standards.

OSHA’s far-from-perfect track record matters much here because its cost-benefit analysis for the new rules and requirements assumes businesses perfectly comply with all standards, past and present.

The following example demonstrates how perfect compliance exaggerates benefits: Suppose we pass a law mandating that all workers exercise each day for one hour. OSHA would estimate huge health benefits based on the assumption that all workers would, indeed, now exercise for a full hour each day. Of course, we all know that our actions rarely match up to our intentions and actual hours exercised will be far below estimates.

The same goes for OSHA’s assumption that the new silica standard will reduce the number of silicosis cases by 1,600 per year and therefore provide billions of dollars in benefits. These naïve estimates assume that all workers are exposed to no more than the more stringent standard—an unlikely scenario given the lack of success of the current standards.

Thus OSHA’s conclusion—that benefits from the proposed standard greatly outmatch the current standard—are already “baked-into-the-cake.” But this is an invalid comparison, akin to comparing the benefits of a revamped hypothetical law mandating two hours of exercise each day versus one hour. Does anyone believe the entire working population would now double the decreed dose of exercise when the original prescription was quixotic to begin with?

Much of this particularly bad regulatory move’s burden is borne by workers in small businesses. OSHA estimates that 2.2 million workers are exposed to silica, but 1.3 million workers (59 percent) are employed by 470,000 small businesses. Very small businesses—as defined by those with fewer than 20 workers—account for 580,000 (26 percent) of workers exposed to silica, with many working in foundries, construction and dental labs.

OSHA also mandates silica mitigation through dust control methods (e.g., water sprays, dust collectors, enclosed cabs on equipment, or prohibiting activities such as dry sweeping) that require businesses rely on personal protection equipment (PPE), like a gas mask, as a very last resort. Common sense suggests that encouraging the use of PPE may be a cost-effective method of limiting silica exposure, especially for small businesses struggling to make their weekly payrolls. Surprisingly, even though OSHA admits that the stricter proposed standards still pose significant risks, it does not appear to believe that PPE offers an added layer of protection.

Why does OSHA only suggest PPE as a last resort? Because it believes workers might not wear or properly maintain PPEs. But a little common sense suggests that these same arguments may be leveled against approved mandated methods of dust control—strong possibilities given OHSA’s track record on enforcing current standards.

The bottom line remains that OSHA unevenly enforces its well-intentioned rules, so tightening standards for regulations may not help protect workers as much as the agency claims. Similarly, even under perfect compliance with the new standard, PPEs would provide a low-cost option for greater protection from silica dust; yet OSHA bypassed including tighter rules for the use of such equipment. OSHA needs to go back to the drawing board and provide workers with a reasonable, sound and realistic law that protects them from the hazards of silica exposure.

Marlow is an affiliated senior scholar with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and professor of economics and distinguished scholar at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.