OSHA issues long-delayed silica rules

Millions of construction and manufacturing workers will be protected from harmful silica dust under long-delayed rules from the Obama administration.

The Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced Thursday it is cutting in half the level of silica workers can be exposed to on the job.

Silica has been linked to lung cancer, kidney disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, according to the Labor Department, which estimates the new rules will save 600 lives a year.

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"No one should have to shorten his or her life to make a living,” Labor Secretary Tom Perez said Thursday.

"Everyone who leaves for work in the morning should come home safe and sound,” he added.

The Labor Department will cut the silica exposure rate to no more than 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air during the course of a regular, eight-hour work day.

The current standard for manufacturers is set at 100 micrograms; it can be as high as 250 micrograms in the construction industry. 

Workers in these industries will also be trained to protect themselves from exposure to silica and will face routine medical exams.

Labor groups applauded the silica protections, but industry blasted the rule as costly and unnecessary.

The nation’s top labor leader called the silica rules “the most significant OSHA standards issued in decades.”

“Today, millions of workers can literally breathe easier knowing that they will not have to sacrifice their lungs and their lives by working in deadly silica dust,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in a statement.

But the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) warned the silica rule “drastically underestimates the exorbitant costs that will be inflicted on manufacturers."

“As a result, small and medium-sized manufacturers could be forced to close their doors,” NAM President Jay Timmons said in a statement. 

The National Federation of Independent Business estimates the rule will cost industry $7.2 billion a year to comply with, which could lead to 27,000 job cuts over the next decade.

The Labor Department first established silica protections in the 1970s, but even at that time critics said the rules did not go far enough to protect workers.

Labor groups say they have been calling for stronger silica protections ever since.

"They were out of date the moment they went into effect,” Perez admitted.

But the delays continued under the Obama administration, which set out to update the silica protections as far back as 2011.

The Labor Department’s proposed rule was delayed for more than two years before the White House’s Office of Management and Budget approved it. After a lengthy comment period and a number of public hearings, the agency is just now finalizing the rule.

“I’m sorry it took this long,” Perez said.

Perez said society has known about the dangers of silica since the ancient times of the “Romans and Greeks.”

“Better late than never,” he said.