Exposure to crystalline silica has been known to be a problem since the pyramids were built. In fact, silicosis is one of the oldest known occupational diseases. Francis Perkins, who served as the U.S. Secretary of Labor in the Roosevelt administration and after whom the current Labor Department headquarters is named, convened a National Conference to Stop Silicosis in 1938.
The new crystalline silica rule from OSHA covering workers in general industry, maritime and construction aims to bring worker protections into the 21st century. OSHA’s proposed rulemaking includes two separate standards – one for general industry and maritime employment, and one for construction. The proposed standards seek to lower worker exposure to crystalline silica, which kills hundreds of workers and sickens thousands more each year. After publication of the proposal, the public will have 90 days to submit written comments, followed by public hearings.
“Exposure to silica can be deadly, and limiting that exposure is essential,” said Dr. David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health. “Every year, exposed workers not only lose their ability to work, but also to breathe. This proposal is expected to prevent thousands of deaths from silicosis – an incurable and progressive disease – as well as lung cancer, other respiratory diseases and kidney disease. We’re looking forward to public comment on the proposal.”
Once the full effects of the rule are realized, OSHA estimates that it will result in saving nearly 700 lives per year and prevent 1,600 new cases of silicosis annually. More than 2 million workers each year are exposed to silica.
The agency currently enforces 40-year-old permissible exposure limits (PELs) for crystalline silica in general industry, construction and shipyards that are outdated, inconsistent between industries and do not adequately protect worker health.
Support from the AFL-CIO
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said the AFL-CIO welcomes the proposed silica standard, noting it is particularly important for workers in construction, foundries, shipyards and in oil and gas drilling who face the highest exposures.
“This rule is long overdue,” Trumka added. “The development of the silica standard began more than 16 years ago. Meanwhile workers have continued to suffer unnecessary disease and death … The current OSHA silica standard was adopted decades ago and fails to protect workers. It allows very high levels of exposure and has no requirements to train workers or monitor exposure levels. Simply enforcing the current rule, as some in industry have called for won’t protect workers.”
The proposed rule will cut permitted exposure limit for respirable crystalline silica levels in half, require exposure monitoring and medical surveillance for exposed workers, new recordkeeping measures and require the implementation of well-established dust control methods, like the use of water and ventilation.
“The proposed rule uses common sense measures that will protect workers’ lives and lungs – like keeping the material wet so dust doesn’t become airborne,” added Michaels. “It is designed to give employers flexibility in selecting ways to meet the standard.”
The proposal is based on extensive review of scientific and technical evidence, consideration of current industry consensus standards and outreach by OSHA to stakeholders, including public stakeholder meetings, conferences and meetings with employer and employee organizations.
Trumka noted that therule is only a proposal – workers exposed to silica dust will only be protected when a final rule is issued. “Some industry groups are certain to attack the rule and try to stop it in its tracks,” said Trumka. “The AFL-CIO will do everything we can to see that does not happen.”
“This needed adjustment is long overdue,” said Tee L. Guidotti, MD, MPH, a member of the American Thoracic Society’s Environmental Health Policy Committee involved in the society’s efforts to establish a lower exposure standard. “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.”
Guidotti said the society supports the proposed lower standard of 0.05 mg/m3 time-weighted average for up to 10 hours during a 40-hour work week, “which will protect hundreds and possibly thousands of workers from silica-related health effects at almost no cost, as silica exposure can be easily prevented with simple and inexpensive technology.”
Exposure levels and death rates from silica-related diseases in the U.S. far exceed those of comparable developed economies around the world. Silicosis virtually has been eliminated in the European Union with the use of simple and inexpensive measures such as adequate ventilation, wetting rock before it is cut and banning sandblasting with silica sand in favor of readily available alternatives.
OSHA has been trying to strengthen rules limiting workers' exposure to silica since the 1980s, but has been stymied by industry opposition. Its current proposal has been in bureaucratic limbo since 2000. Most recently, the proposed rule was stuck at the U.S. Office of Management and Budget’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) for more than two and a half years, despite the agency’s deadline to review the rule within 90 days.
“America’s workers could not wait any longer for the White House to issue a rule to protect them from over-exposure to silica dust,” said Tom O’Connor, executive director of National COSH. “When this rule goes into effect, hundreds of thousands of workers will benefit from increased protections from entirely preventable silica-related disease.”
OSHA estimates that about 2.2 million workers in the U.S. are exposed to silica dust – nearly 1.85 million of whom are in the construction industry – and potentially face silica-related disease. In addition to causing silicosis, studies also have found a strong association between silica exposure and lung cancer, kidney disease and autoimmune system disorders.
“Workers in industries exposed to silica dust include some of the country’s most vulnerable workers,” O’Connor said. “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. This new rule will help to pull them out of the shadows and make them safer at work. Everyone, regardless of immigration status, deserves a safe workplace.”
Industry Association Doesn't Want Lower PEL
The nation’s largest sand producers say a proposed occupational safety and health administration silica rule is needed to protect workers. Mark Ellis, president of the National Industrial Sand Association (NISA), said his members “agree with OSHA’s mandating dust monitoring and medical surveillance. NISA companies have been voluntarily conducting dust monitoring and medical surveillance in their workplaces for more than 30 years and, as a result, have virtually eliminated silicosis from their workplaces.”
NISA companies are the largest producers of industrial sand in the United States and supply sand for the oil and gas industry, glass manufacturing, foundries, building products, water filtration and other industrial uses.
Ellis is not happy with the proposed permissible exposure level, however: “Because our companies have successfully protected their workers under the current permissible exposure limit (PEL), we do not believe there is a proven need to lower that level and disagree with OSHA’s proposal to cut that limit in half. We believe our shared goal of eradicating silicosis from American workplaces can be achieved under the current exposure limit by requiring companies to comply with proposed rules for regular monitoring of the air their workers breathe to insure it is below the current limit.”
It is apparent from his remarks that the National Industrial Sand Association will oppose the new PEL during the comment period. According to Ellis, industrial sand companies have one of the longest histories of working with silica and more direct contact with silica than anyone else in industry. More than 30 years ago, the association and its member companies worked with occupational health experts to establish an Occupational Health Program (OHP), which consists of what Ellis says is “a strong management commitment to implement a silicosis prevention program, routine medical surveillance to look for lung disease, periodic assessments of the amount of silica dust exposure, implementation of dust control methodologies, employee involvement and smoking cessation programs. The NISA program goes far beyond current regulatory requirements.”
American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) President Barbara J. Dawson, CIH, CSP, said AIHA is pleased that the rulemaking process on crystalline silica is moving forward, but said the association still is in the process of reviewing the proposed rule.
“We look forward to working with OSHA and other stakeholders in finalizing a rule that will reduce employees’ exposure to silica in the workplace,” said Dawson.