New silicosis standard is long overdue

After 40 plus years and much human suffering, the final rule can’t come soon enough.

Newton B. Jones, Intl. President

OSHA estimates proposed rule would save 700 lives annually

SILICOSIS IS A danger in many industries where Boilermakers work: cement-making, mining, foundries, construction, railroads and shipbuilding. It is a progressive, incurable disease caused by inhaling tiny crystalline particles 100 times smaller than a grain of sand. Over time, these particles scar the lungs to such an extent that breathing becomes difficult or next to impossible. But with proper precautions, worker exposure can be minimized.

Unfortunately, OSHA rules for silica dust exposure have not been updated in over 40 years. This is a terrible tragedy for the hundreds of U.S. workers who die annually from silicosis and related diseases, and the families who suffer the losses. And it is a tragedy for thousands more each year who contract the disease and face years of progressive debilitation.

Today, some 2.2 million workers in the United States, mostly in the construction industry, are at risk of silica exposure, according to the agency.

On August 23, OSHA published a proposal to update the rule on silica dust exposure. The Boilermakers union strongly supports this action.

Agency proposal is reasonable and cost-effective

THE PROPOSED RULE would help correct substantial problems with the 1971 standard. First, it would apply permissible exposure limits (PELs) based on more recent scientific and technical evidence, rather than research done back in the 1960s and before.

How silica dust gets into our lungs

SILICA IS A naturally-occurring mineral in rocks, stone, sand, and other materials. When grinding, sawing, sandblasting, or performing other common tasks, minute dust particles can be suspended in the air around the work site. Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) also poses exposure risks, as it makes extensive use of sand to break up natural gas and oil deposits encased in shale.

Without proper respirator and ventilation precautions, crystalline silica dust can be inhaled into a worker’s lungs — where it is likely to remain for life.

Even relatively brief exposure to crystalline silica dust can cause silicosis if the concentration level is high. Known as acute silicosis, this form can develop within just a few weeks.

In addition to silicosis, inhaling crystalline silica dust can lead to other respiratory diseases, lung cancer, and kidney disease.

Exposure to silica dust can be minimized by taking such simple precautions as wetting down saw blades or using a vacuum system to remove silica dust.

Facts about Silicosis

  • Silica (silicon dioxide) is the most abundant mineral on earth.
  • Deaths from silicosis are four times higher than deaths from asbestos.
  • Silicosis is irreversible. The disease progresses even after the exposure ends.
  • Over 2 million U.S. workers are exposed to some level of silica dust on the job.
  • The highest exposure to silica dust occurs in the construction industry.
  • Between 1991 and 1995, China recorded more than 500,000 cases of silicosis.

Second, it would update the way worker exposures are measured. The current method is outdated and is not even in common use, according to OSHA.

Finally, it would make the PEL consistent across all covered industries and lower it to 50 micrograms of respirable crystalline silica per cubic meter of air (50 μg/m3), averaged over an 8-hour day. The 1971 rule had set the PEL at 250 micrograms per cubic meter of air (250 μg/m3) for construction and 100 for maritime and general industry.

In Canada, some provinces have adopted the 2013 total limit value (TLV) recommended by the American Conference of Industrial Hygienists: 25 μg/m3. Other provinces allow exposures two to four times higher. Canadian Boilermakers continue to lobby for changes where the TLV thresholds are outdated.

Additional requirements under the proposed OSHA rule, according to an agency fact sheet, include “provisions for measuring how much silica workers are exposed to, limiting workers’ access to areas where silica exposures are high, using effective methods for reducing exposures, providing medical exams to workers with high silica exposures, and training for workers about silica-related hazards and how to limit exposure.”

OSHA estimates an average workplace cost to comply with the new silica rule at about $1,200 annually, with net benefits each year totaling $2.8 to $4.7 billion over the next 60 years.

Let’s bring silica standard “into the 21st century”

ACCORDING TO OSHA, the proposed rule will save about 700 lives and prevent 1,600 new cases of silicosis each year. Dr. David Michaels, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Health and Safety, stated:

“Since our current silica standards were issued in 1971, numerous studies have found increased risk of lung cancer among silica-exposed workers. The U.S. National Toxicology Program, the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health have all identified respirable silica as a human carcinogen — a cause of lung cancer in workers exposed to the dust. This proposed rule brings worker protections into the 21st century.”

It is absolutely necessary to go below the current PEL.
     — Dr. David Michaels, Asst. Sec. of Labor (OSHA)

Dr. Michaels added, “It is absolutely necessary to go below the current PEL.”

Opposition to the proposed rule has quickly surfaced, with the notoriously anti-union Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) leading 11 building and contracting associations in the attack. Calling itself the Construction Industry Safety Coalition, the group challenges the science used for the new exposure limits while it whines about the cost of compliance. This is a thinly-disguised effort to delay even further the efforts at updating the rule.

Yet, if OSHA is correct, many employers already have appropriate safeguards and policies in place or can readily make the necessary changes to their work processes and practices. For those employers, adjusting to the new rule should not pose substantial cost or operational interruptions.

For those employers who have not met the consensus standards for dealing with silica exposure, it is long past time to do the responsible thing and protect their employees. To put it more bluntly, they should stop putting their employees’ health and lives at risk for the sake of higher profits.

OSHA will allow 90 days for public comment once the proposed new rule has been published in the Federal Register. The agency expects to hold public hearings beginning in March 2014. No date has been set for publishing the final rule. It is likely that even if the process proceeds smoothly, it will be several years before all provisions are in place.

After 40 plus years and much human suffering, the final rule can’t come soon enough.