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House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections Holds Hearings on New Silica Standard

House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections Holds Hearings on New Silica Standard

Small business owners describe new silica standards as “unworkable.”

The Subcommittee on Workforce Protections, chaired by Rep. Tim Walberg (R-MI), held a April 19 to review recent changes to OSHA’s silica standards and the potential impact they could have on workplaces and employers.

“We all agree that hardworking men and women should be able to earn a paycheck without risking a serious injury or being exposed to a deadly disease. And every family deserves the peace of mind that their loved ones are safe on the job,” said Wallberg. “The question before the committee … is whether the workplace rules and regulations coming out of Washington serve the best interests of employees and their employers. Are they practical, responsible and fair? Are they created with transparency and enforced effectively?”

In March 2016, OSHA issued a final regulation lowering the permissible exposure limits to silica. While many groups have indicated support for the new standards, there are a number of others that have concerns with the rule, including its feasibility, the financial impact on small businesses and whether it can be properly enforced.

“The strongest health and safety rules will do little to protect America’s workers if the rules are not followed and enforced­­ – or if they’re too confusing and complex to even implement in the first place,” said Walberg. “That is why this committee has pressed OSHA to use the tools at its disposal to enforce existing standards. Unfortunately, the agency has failed to do so … Instead of enforcing the rules already on the books, the department spent significant time and resources crafting an entirely new regulatory regime.”

Jessica Martinez, acting executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH), took the subcommittee to task in a statement, saying, “It’s unclear what the purpose of today’s hearing is. The concerns employers have about the new rule have been heard and these issues have been decided during an exhaustive regulatory process. OSHA rigorously followed all required rules and procedures and received extensive input from all stakeholders, including workers, employers and safety experts.”

She suggested the Subcommittee on Workforce Protections “can make better use of its time … by examining the many other areas in which workers need new, enforceable protections against hazards which claim tens of thousand of lives and cause millions of injuries every year.”

Witnesses at the hearing testified that the recent changes to the silica standards are not enforceable and will be unworkable in practice.

“Sensible regulations play a vital role in ensuring their health and safety. But those rules must be practical and feasible, economically and technically, to be truly effective,” Ed Brady, a second-generation home builder from Illinois, said. “OSHA’s final silica rule demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding for how the construction industry – and in particular residential construction – operates.”

Brady went on to explain the negative impact this rule would have on smaller home builders and how impractical – and in some cases impossible – it will be for them to comply. “OSHA developed a rule designed for workers who perform the same tasks on the same sites every day,” he said. “That is not the pattern on jobsites where workers perform many and varied tasks in a variety of different environments.”

Janis Herschkowitz, who owns a small, second-generation metalcasting company in Pennsylvania, echoed these concerns, saying the rule “presents enormous feasibility challenges.”

“Foundries will have to exhaust all feasible engineering and work practice controls to meet the new reduced [limits]. There is not a one-size-fits-all solution that is guaranteed to work,” continued Herschkowitz. “Some foundries may spend millions of dollars retrofitting and … rebuilding in order to implement the various types of engineering controls – essentially trial and error – while attempting to comply with the new standard.”

She said the worst-case scenario with OSHA’s rule is that if they are unable to meet the requirements, they could be forced to shutter the business, causing their other facilities to close as well. “Simply put,” she added, “over 150 highly skilled co-workers would lose their jobs, which would also have a devastating effect on our local economy, and our nation’s military who would lose a critical supplier.”

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