OSHA pumps brakes on worker safety rule

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is delaying a regulation to protect workers from an industrial dust that has been linked to cancer and lung disease.

On Thursday, the agency announced that it would give the public 47 additional days to comment on its proposed regulation limiting the amount of silica dust that workers can be exposed to, which has been in the works for a decade.

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The agency is extending the comment time “to ensure we hear from all stakeholders who wish to participate,” OSHA chief David Michaels said in a statement.

“We especially hope to hear from employers, workers and public health professionals who have experience in successfully protecting workers from silica-related diseases,” he added.

Silica dust, which is present at construction sites, shipyards and other industrial facilities, can lead to the lung disease silicosis as well as lung cancer.

Business advocates have pressed the agency to give the public more time to weigh in on the 755-page proposal, which was unveiled earlier this year to great fanfare from unions and worker safety advocates.

Workplace safety organizations warned that any delay leaves workers unnecessarily exposed to the harmful dust.

“As OSHA has pointed out in the proposal, millions of workers face the risks that come with exposure to silica and every day that the proposal is delayed means another day of delay in protections,” said Matthew Shudtz, a senior policy analyst with the Center for Progressive Reform. “That has real costs in terms of workers' health.”

He also noted that OSHA regulations tend to take about three years to finalize once they are unveiled. That means that any delays to the process could push the rule into the middle of the 2016 presidential election season, when regulations can often be politicized.

This week, the head of the House Small Business Committee and the Small Business Administration’s Office of Advocacy both wrote to OSHA asking for more time for small businesses to make their voices heard.

In a letter on Thursday, Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), the committee chairman, said that extending the deadline “will help ensure that small businesses and their representatives are able to provide OSHA meaningful comments and data.”

The regulation would affect about 470,000 small businesses with workers that are exposed to silica, according to OSHA’s analysis.

It would also save nearly 700 lives and prevent more than 1,600 new cases of silicosis each year, the agency estimated.

The comment period was previously set to close on Dec. 11.

OSHA will now keep the comment period open for an additional 47 days, until Jan. 27. That’s less than the 90 days Graves and the SBA advocacy office had asked for.

After that, the agency will review the comments and hold a public hearing before finalizing the regulation.