Labor Dept. delays silica rule to protect workers

The Obama administration is once again delaying a contentious new silica dust rule that the government says would strengthen workplace protections and save lives.

The U.S. Department of Labor announced Friday it is extending the public comment period by two weeks because of an error on the federal government's website where stakeholders are able to submit comments about rules agencies are considering. The deadline has been pushed back to Feb. 11.

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Silica dust, which is most commonly found at construction sites and shipyards, has been linked to numerous diseases, including cancer. But the government estimates the new rules will prevent as many as 700 deaths each year.

The Hill previously reported that the silica dust rule was one of the 10 most controversial regulations from 2013.

Safety advocates have lamented numerous delays to the rule as just another example of stalled worker protections under the Obama administration. As it stands now, 2.2 million workers are exposed to silica on the job, according to government estimates.

Back in August when the silica rule was first proposed, the AFL-CIO called it “long overdue.”

“This is a strong rule that will protect workers from unnecessary disease and death,” Peg Seminario, director of safety and health at the AFL-CIO, said at the time. “It is now crucial that OSHA and the Obama administration move forward as quickly as possible to finalize the rule while thwarting any industry attacks that may be launched against the improved standards.”

The Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration proposed regulations that would limit workers' exposure to silica dust in August after it had been held up for years at the White House's regulatory review office.

But then it was delayed in October, after House Small Business Committee Chairman Sam Graves (R-Mo.) asked the agency for an extension. 

The most recent delay due to website glitches came Friday.

“I’m pleased that OSHA is giving the public more time to make their voices heard on how this proposed rule may affect them,” Graves said Friday in a statement. “Because this rule could create new standards and requirements for small businesses in construction, manufacturing, and many other industries, significant input from the small business community is needed so the final rule is one that increases safety and is technologically and economically feasible.”

Industry groups generally oppose the rule because it would cost them millions of dollars to implement. They also point out that it seems unnecessary because they have already made a number of safety and health improvements to job sites.

The Labor Department may still make changes to the silica rule before it becomes final. Business groups have been fighting for concessions that would make the rule less restrictive. At the very least, this delay buys them more time.

Public hearings about the silica dust rule, which follow the comment period, are scheduled to begin March 18.

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