The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, April 22, 2016

New silica rule already making court appearance

By The Building Tradesman

Industry pushback against a new worker-friendly silica rule quickly went into the courts, barely a week after the rule was released by the Obama Administration's Labor Department.

The Louisiana chapter of the Associated General Contractors of America on April 4 filed a challenge to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA) final respirable crystalline silica rule in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. In doing so, the chapter says it has joined a number of local industry partners who are also concerned about the impact of the rule on the construction industry.

"Our members are deeply committed to taking every possible step to provide a safe construction environment including reducing silica exposure," said Stephen E. Sandherr, the national association's chief executive officer. "However, we have significant concerns about whether this new rule is technically feasible, given that the agency's final permissible exposure limit is beyond the capacity of existing dust filtration and removal technology."

Crystalline silica is a material found in rocks and sand, and in its most common form, quartz. When it is ground to dust and inhaled, silica can cause serious lung disease, or lung cancer. OSHA estimates that when the final rule on Occupational Exposure to Respirable Crystalline Silica becomes fully effective in June 2017, it will save more than 600 lives annually and prevent more than 900 new cases of silicosis – an incurable and progressive disease – each year.

The new standard reduces the permissible exposure limit (PEL) for respirable crystalline silica to 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air (currently the standard is 100), averaged over an 8-hour shift. It also requires employers to: use engineering controls (such as water or ventilation) to limit worker exposure to the PEL; provide respirators when engineering controls cannot adequately limit exposure; limit worker access to high exposure areas; develop a written exposure control plan, offer medical exams to highly exposed workers, and train workers on silica risks and how to limit exposures.

Sandherr added that while the administration did make a number of the changes to the final rule, including dropping requirements for contractors to establish regulated areas that would block access to parts of construction sites where dust is being generated, the association continues to feel that this final rule is not acceptable.

He said that the AGC has long urged federal officials to craft measures that would allow the roughly 25 percent of firms not meeting the prior standard to comply. "Given the tremendous reductions in silicosis within the construction industry that has taken place since that standard was put in place, even more lives could be saved by getting greater compliance with that standard," the association executive noted.

The Bricklayers and Allied Crafts union has been a strong proponent of the new silica rules. The Labor Department's release of the new rules for working around silica caps an effort that took 40 years to strengthen the standard.

“The previous exposure limits were outdated and did not adequately protect workers,” said Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Dr. David Michaels, when the new standard was announced. “Limiting exposure to silica dust is essential. Every year, many exposed workers not only lose their ability to work, but also to breathe. Today, we are taking action to bring worker protections into the 21st century in ways that are feasible and economical for employers to implement.”