Obama Administration Issues Rule to Limit Exposure to Silica Dust

Labor Department said new rule will improve workers’ lives by cutting in half existing exposure limits to silica

By Melanie Trottman

The Obama administration issued a long-awaited new regulation Thursday to lower workers’ exposure to a potentially deadly dust commonly found in construction and manufacturing materials, completing a decadeslong effort that is likely to become one of the administration’s signature workplace health and safety initiatives.

The rule sets new exposure limits on crystalline silica, a dust found in rock, sand and other materials used in industries such as construction, hydraulic fracking of oil and gas wells, glassmaking and foundry work.

The Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which issued the regulations said silica exposure is a serious threat to about 2.3 million U.S. workers, most of them in the construction industry and tens of thousands in high-risk jobs such as rock drilling, stonecutting and abrasive blasting.

The agency estimates the rule will save more than 600 lives a year and prevent more than 900 new cases of silicosis, an incurable lung disease caused by inhaling tiny bits of silica that can swell the lungs and lead to respiratory failure. The dust has also been linked to lung cancer and kidney disease.

The Labor Department said the rule will improve workers’ lives by cutting in half the existing exposure limits many workers are allowed to have to silica. The new limit will be 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air, averaged over an eight-hour shift. Employers will have to use common sense engineering controls — such as keeping materials wet to prevent dust from becoming airborne—or respirators if those controls don’t limit the exposure. They’ll also have to limit worker access to high exposure areas and provide medical exams to monitor those who are highly exposed.

“The Obama administration believes in science,” Labor Secretary Thomas Perez said at an event Thursday morning near Washington where he announced the rule. “Today the public policy is catching up with the science.”

Much of the business community says the rule will be too costly and hasn’t been justified. The rates of silica deaths have already dropped dramatically under the existing regulations that OSHA should be doing a much better job of enforcing, said Marc Freedman, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Executive Director of Labor Law Policy. What’s more, the agency hasn’t adequately established that the new silica limits can be accurately and consistently measured by labs to ensure compliance, the Chamber and other business groups say.

“The new OSHA regulation is neither technologically nor economically feasible,” said Mr. Freedman. “Compliance will be undermined by laboratories not being capable of measuring silica at the new specified levels, and installing the control systems OSHA requires will cost hundreds of millions of dollars that most employers, and certainly small businesses, will not be able to afford.”

Completing the regulation is a giant step forward for the Obama administration given the history of the silica rule making and the hurdles required to enact workplace health regulations. The current round of silica rule making dates back to the Clinton administration.

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