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OSHA proposes to halve silica dust exposure limit

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.

Steve White, director of the Affiliated Construction Trades Foundation, noted that many West Virginians are familiar with the Hawks Nest Tunnel Disaster, where more than 700 workers died after helping to bore a tunnel through pure silica.

"People think those bad old days are over, but the facts are, construction workers still get exposed to silica when they drill rock, cut concrete, brick and stone, and many other tasks," White said. "These regulations are long overdue and much needed."

Other sectors with large numbers of workers covered include concrete products, ready-mix concrete and foundries.

In March, the American Foundry Association met with White House officials to complain that the rule would be too burdensome, saying that OSHA underestimated the costs and saying "massive additional controls" would be needed for their industry to comply.

OSHA also noted that more than 25,400 workers in the oil and gas extraction industry are exposed to silica dust and pointed out NIOSH studies that found dust at gas-drilling sites far exceeded even the current, outdated limits.

Steve Everley, a spokesman for the natural gas group Energy In Depth, said that industry recognizes the issue and has been working with OSHA and NIOSH to deal with it.

"It's also important to note that the risks involved here are manageable," Everley said. "OSHA isn't saying that we need to shut down oil and gas development or ban hydraulic fracturing."

Labor and workplace safety advocates also said the silica proposal was a major step forward for the Obama administration, whose efforts on other key issues such as combustible dust or child labor on farms have been delayed or stalled by the White House.

The National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, for example, noted that the silica rule itself was stuck at the White House Office of Management and Budget, where economic reviews of such matters are supposed to be completed within 90 days.

Celeste Monforton, a former staffer for OSHA and its sister agency, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, noted that MSHA has been waiting several years to publish its own silica rule, saying it wanted to review OSHA's effort first.

Exposure to silica has been linked to an increase in lung disease among underground coal miners and also puts employees at large-scale surface mining operations at risk.

"It's time for MSHA to issue its proposal now -- and I mean immediately," Monforton said.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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