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Safer silica standard jeered by industry, which wants a ‘cost-effective approach’

Date Posted: October 18 2013

“No matter how cynical you get,” comedienne Lily Tomlin said, “it is impossible to keep up.”

Case in point: After “decades of discussion and bureaucratic red tape, OSHA finally issued a proposed standard to protect workers from silica on Aug. 23,” reports Scott Schneider, director of Occupational Safety and Health at the Laborers International Union. But the costs of implementing a new standard are expected to be a major hang up with contractors.

Labor unions and other worker advocates have been at the forefront of the push for getting a new, stronger standard to help protect workers toiling around airborne silica dust in the construction industry. The dust potentially affects every tradeperson who works on a construction site, and it is created by tasks like cutting brick or concrete pavement or by mixing cement.

Breathing particles of silica – essentially ground sand – can damage lungs and cause silicosis. Sufferers can't take a deep breathe and they become weak. There’s no cure for it. Existing standards date to the 1960s.

 “For decades, OSHA has maintained an exposure limit for silica, but it is way too high, out of date and uses an obsolete measurement method,” said Schneider, who has testified on the matter before OSHA. “The proposed rule would reduce the allowable exposure limit to about one-fifth of what is currently allowed, but more importantly, OSHA is proposing a task-based control standard (as it has done with lead and asbestos) wherein certain operations known to produce high exposures will require the use of wet methods or local ventilation. These controls are known to significantly reduce exposures.”

Great news, but of course it’s not the end of the story. Industry groups have battled to keep the new standard bottled up in OSHA committees, and now that it has been issued they’re attempting to rein it in.

Among the detractors of the new silica standard is, of course, the anti-union Associated Builders and Contractors. But they’re also joined by contractor groups with union ties like the National Electrical Contractors Association, the Mechanical Contractors Association of America and the Mason Contractors Association of America. They’re all part of a new group, the “Construction Industry Safety Coalition,” that seems ironically, to have been formed specifically to protest the new, safer silica standard.

“OSHA still has not explained how a lowered PEL (permissible exposure limit) will be effective at reducing the number of silica-related illnesses, particularly when the agency has admitted its failure to properly enforce the existing standard,” said ABC Vice President of Government Affairs Geoff Burr. “The agency clearly missed an opportunity to take a cost-effective approach while still improving compliance and worker safety.”

The ABC’s take on the new proposed regulations is that “OSHA proposed drastically lowering the existing permissible exposure limit (PEL) for silica, prescribed control methods that contradict existing safety practice, and mandated new recordkeeping and training requirements. Independent studies have estimated compliance with similar provisions to cost $1 billion to $2 billion per year.”

Some detractors of the new standard say the costs of the new silica rules would be too high for employers, and that all that is needed is greater enforcement of the existing standard. 

But the National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health issued a statement saying it was "deeply distressed" that the proposed new regulations had been under review for so long. “The current standard is many decades old and is insufficient to protect workers from this serious occupational health hazard,” the advisory committee said.

Public hearings are the next step for the proposed new standard, and there are no guarantees it will become a permanent rule.

Michael Silverstein, the chairman of the advisory committee, told NPR that having the rule tied up was irresponsible. “Whether or not the current standard is being entirely complied with – and it's not – does not change the fact that the current standard is too weak,” he says. “The acceptable baseline needs to be lowered.”