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to silica dust and pointed out NIOSH studies that found dust at gas-drilling sites far exceeded even the current, outdated limits.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 kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.