New OSHA Silica Rule Could Save 700 Lives and prevent 1,600 Cases of Silicosis a Year

Between 1999 and 2013, more than 2,000 US workers died from silicosis, a chronic, disabling lung disease as a result of inhaling crystalline silica, even as many additional deaths from silicosis are likely undiagnosed and unreported.

Between 3000 and 7000 new cases of silicosis arise each and every year. Exposure to crystalline silica can also cause lung cancer and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease and kidney disease.

An estimated 2 million workers are exposed in a broad range of workplaces, including construction, foundries, glass manufacturing, brick-making facilities and at hydraulic fracking sites. The industry that leads in premature mortality -- years of potential life lost -- from silicosis is construction.

U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez announced on March 24th a final implementation of a new rule, issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), designed to sharply lower worker exposure to silica dust. The newly amended silica rule is actually two rules tailoring requirements to circumstances for two sectors. One covers construction and the other rule covers general industry and maritime.

The old OSHA standard which the new rule is amending dates back to 1971. In 1974, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommended that OSHA cut its silica exposure limit in half. The current round of updating the rule began under the Clinton administration – almost 20 years ago.

The new OSHA limit reduces dust levels two to five times lower than the current OSHA permissible exposure and requires employers to use cost-effective measures to reduce silica dust, including wetting down and enclosing affected areas, using tools with vacuum attachments to capture dust before workers inhale it, and improved ventilation. Employers will also be required to monitor workers’ exposure to silica, provide medical exams for those with high exposure, and train all potentially exposed workers about silica hazards and appropriate worksite controls. The rule itself and segments of the rule will, however, be phased in over several years; and some industries like hydraulic fracking will have even longer extensions.

The new standard could save nearly 700 lives and prevent approximately 1,600 new cases of silicosis per year, according to OSHA. While the AFL-CIO and worker safety advocates such as the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, the American Public Health Association and Public Citizen applaud the new rule, industry and business groups have expressed opposition.