At long last, OSHA publishes proposal to protect silica-exposed workers

After more than 900 days of "review" by the White House's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), OSHA announced it was publishing a proposed rule to protect workers who are exposed to respirable crystalline silica.  It's a workplace hazard that causes the irreversible and progressive lung disease silicosis, and is also associated with lung cancer, autoimmune disorders and kidney disease.  About 2.2 million workers are exposed to the fine dust in their jobs, many of which are employed in the construction industry.  I've been writing here for about two years on the need for a standard, and how the Administration's long delay in issuing the proposal has real consequences for workers' health.  This long awaited OSHA action proposes to require employers to:

  • reduce the occupational permissible exposure limit to 50 micrograms of respirable crystalline silica per cubic meter of air (μg/m3), averaged over an 8-hour day;
  • conduct exposure monitoring to ensure dust controls are working properly;
  • offer medical exams to exposed workers; and
  • conduct worker training on the hazards of and control measures for respirable silica.

OSHA's news release announcing the proposal, as well as OSHA chief David Michaels' statement, repeated that the agency's action is just a proposal.   Michaels' statement even included the word "proposal" in italics to add emphasis.  It said:

This is a proposed rule and not a final rule. We are inviting and strongly encouraging the public to participate in the process of developing a final rule through submitting written comments and participating in public hearings that are scheduled to begin in Washington, DC in early March. Our process of obtaining public input will take many months, and we encourage and welcome the public to participate.

The emphasis on it being a proposal is important.  OSHA, worker safety advocates and the public health community know that many of the affected industries and businesses will be making all kinds of claims about the rule when it is actually far from a done deal. (Next week I'll have a post predicting all the arguments we'll be hearing from opponents of OSHA's action.)

Following OSHA's announcement, the American Thoracic Society (ATS), the "world's leading medical association dedicated to advancing our clinical and scientific understanding of pulmonary diseases" issued a statement.  ATS noted:

“The current OSHA standard for respirable crystalline silica of 0.10 mg/m3 8 hour-time weighted average has remained the same for 40 years and has been shown in numerous studies not to be protective.  ...Silicosis and the other diseases caused by crystalline silica exposure are entirely preventable and this new lowerstandard is an important step toward this goal.

The United Steelworkers Union also issued a statement saying

"this action is long overdue--too many workers have died from exposure to silica.  Regulations like these save lives."

The AFL-CIO explained

"Silica dust is a killer. It causes silicosis a disabling lung disease that literally suffocates workers to death. It also causes lung cancer and other diseases. The current OSHA silica standard was adopted decades ago and fails to protect workers."

The National Council for Occupational Safety and Health noted:

“Workers in industries exposed to silica dust include some of the country’s most vulnerable workers.  Low-wage immigrant workers and temporary workers are disproportionally represented in the industries with silica exposure – and are the most vulnerable to retaliation should they report potential hazards, injuries or illnesses."

The reason for a silica rule is explained best by Alan White, a 48 year old foundry worker from Buffalo, NY.  He was diagnosed four years ago with silicosis.

"Working at the foundry had been a goal for me. My father worked at the foundry before me, my brother works there now.  Eighteen years ago I was excited to get a job at the foundry.  At that time I was a single parent, making ends meet with assistance from the government. When I got my job at the foundry I made more than $60,000 the first year and thought I was set. I was ready and willing to give my all to work.  But I never realized that that included my life. I still work at the same company, but in a different part of the plant where there is less silica exposure.

I have always been in good physical condition.  I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, I eat organic foods, I don’t eat much red meat.  Now I know that my lifestyle probably won’t benefit my long-term health, because of the devastating effects of silica exposure.

As a new grandfather, I probably will not be able to run with my grandchild through the park as I had hoped. Even simple tasks like walking while talking on a cell phone are difficult and my outlook is downhill from here. I live about one mile from work. I tried to walk home from work the other day and it took more than an hour because my lungs can’t keep up with the pace of a slow walk.

The progression of silicosis reduces my physical endurance over time and is very difficult to experience. In the past I have just been able to deal with the pain and the effects of this illness, but in the future walking short distances or climbing a few steps will be very difficult or impossible for me. Eventually I won’t be able to work at the plant. I will probably be too young to retire or use my 401K. I don’t know what I will do.

My health will not improve, but as OSHA moves forward with this silica standard other workers will be able to enjoy their time with their grandchildren."
I sincerely hope that Alan White will be with us still when OSHA completes this rulemaking and issues a final rule on respirable crystalline silica.

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Why are the public hearings not happening until March? Is it because OSHA has to get the proposed regulatory impact analysis (the costs and benefits analysis) into its final form? Or is there some other review step in between (SBREFA?)

By Michael Foley (not verified) on 23 Aug 2013 #permalink

Good question Michael. I wondered the same thing when I heard David Michaels mention that during today's press call. OSHA completed the SBREFA process in 2003, and its preliminary regulatory impact analysis is part of the proposed rule package. Those are not the reason for the six month time frame for the public hearings. I guess that OSHA thinks it will take that long for interested parties to review the rule and prepare to participate in the public hearings. I was predicting that they'd be scheduled in January 2014.

Maybe they can blame sequestration!!!

It has been an honor to work with Alan White during the process. His story is as important as his journey is tragic.

I wholeheartedly agree. Alan White is a courageous man who will not personally benefit from a more protective silica regulation, but doesn't want the next generation of workers to develop serious health problems because of silica exposures at work. A true hero for public health.

Another reason for the lag time in holding the public hearings may be this: Since OSHA typically extends the comment period beyond what is initially announced, they may be thinking ahead. We can be glad that the date for the public hearings have already been decided and announced.