Steelworkers push OSHA to finalize silica rule

The Labor Department is listening to a handful of business, labor, and environmental groups as it wraps up the second week of public hearings on a rule that would protect workers from exposure to harmful silica dust.

On Friday, the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) heard from the United Steelworkers, who said they are pleased to see the agency is finally moving forward with the rule, but complained about years of delay by the White House.

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"It is tragic that it was delayed by the administration for more than two years," Michael Wright, director of health, safety and environment at the United Steelworkers, testified.

Wright called for the agency to finalize the rule as quickly as possible.

OSHA proposed the silica dust rule last August, after it went through a series of delays. 

The new rules would cut in half the current standards that require companies to emit no more than 100 micrograms of silica per cubic meter of air. 

Labor and environmental groups argue the proposed silica dust rule would set in place much needed protections for construction and manufacturing workers who are exposed to silica on a regular basis. OSHA estimates the rule would prevent 700 deaths each year.

But business groups argue the new regulations would be costly for them to comply with, which could lead to job cuts and hurt the economy.

OSHA's public comment period ended in February, after it was twice extended. The agency is now holding a series of hearings that run for three weeks from March 18 through April 4.

Throughout the hearings, the agency has also heard from the AFL-CIO, United Auto Workers, American Chemistry Council, National Federation of Independent Business, National Association of Manufacturers, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, among other groups.

Pam Whitted, senior vice president of legislative and regulatory affairs at the National Stone, Sand and Gravel Association, testified that the current standards are fine.

"A better approach would be for OSHA to enforce the current permissible exposure limits," the association said in a statement.

In comments filed with OSHA, the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) said last month that the silica rule would hit small businesses particularly hard.

"NFIB strongly urges OSHA to withdraw the rulemaking, because it has not shown that it is necessary, it will be extraordinarily expensive and complex to attain compliance, and it has failed to adequately consider the impact on small businesses and their employees," Dan Bosch, the NFIB's manager of regulatory policy, told OSHA.

But the United Auto Workers (UAW) called on the Labor Department to push through the rule as soon as possible in order to protect workers from silica dust.

"The current OSHA standard is based only on information that was available in 1968," UAW said in a statement. "It allows very high levels of exposure and has no requirements to train workers or monitor exposure levels. Simply enforcing the current rule, as some in industry have called for, won’t protect workers."

The AFL-CIO called the rule "long overdue," in comments filed with OSHA last month. 

"The proposal will significantly reduce workers' exposures to deadly silica dust and prevent thousands of deaths and diseases a year," Peg Seminario, safety and health director at the AFL-CIO, told OSHA.

Ron White, director of regulatory policy at the Center for Effective Government, pointed to an OSHA study that estimates the silica rule would create jobs, contrary to the industry's arguments.

"It actually creates jobs; it doesn't harm jobs," White said.