CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Obama administration officials on Friday proposed to update the federal government's 42-year-old exposure limits for silica dust, a move the Labor Department said would prevent 700 deaths and 1,600 new cases of silicosis every year.
The proposal would provide new protections for 2.2 million American workers, cutting in half the legal limit for dust exposure on the job.
Most affected workers are in the construction industry, but the rule would also cover tens of thousands of employees at foundries, concrete plants, potteries and the nation's growing natural gas drilling business. Eventually, the move could also help reduce lung disease in the nation's coal industry if the administration acts on another long-promised rule.
"This proposal is long overdue," David Michaels, assistant labor secretary in charge of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, told reporters during a telephone news conference Friday afternoon.
The OSHA proposal won broad praise from labor and public health groups, but officials from various industries have already begun to lobby against the changes.
At issue are OSHA's limits for exposure to crystalline silica, or quartz. It's the most common element in the Earth's crust, but is also a serious health hazard when inhaled into the lungs. Workers can be exposed when they drill concrete, cut bricks, crush stone, perform sandblasting or in other jobs where quartz is finely ground and becomes airborne.
When silica dust is inhaled it travels deep into the lungs, where it can scar lungs, making them less elastic and making it more difficult to breathe. Workers can die from acute silicosis after just a few months of high exposures, or more commonly develop chronic silicosis after years of breathing dust.
Public health experts report that about 200 workers die each year from silicosis, and estimate that there are between 3,600 and 7,300 new cases of the disease annually.
"Silica dust is a killer," said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. "The current OSHA silica standard was adopted decades ago and fails to protect workers. But this new standard will."
Generally, the OSHA standard calls for tightening the legal limit for silica exposure from 100 milligrams per cubic meter -- set in 1971 -- to 50 milligrams per cubic meter. The proposed standard would follow National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommendations for tougher standards that have been on the books since 1974.
The proposal would "give employers flexibility in setting ways to meet the standard," such as taking steps to simply wet material so that it doesn't become airborne.
OSHA estimated annual compliance costs at $637 million, but projected yearly benefits of $5.3 billion, for a net benefit of more than $4.6 billion a year.
OSHA said that more than 1.8 million of the workers exposed to silica dust work in the construction industry. Benefits of the rules include eliminating nearly 700 deaths per year from silicosis, other lung diseases and kidney diseases related to silica exposure.