CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Two years. 730 days. Thousands of workers' lives. However you choose to look at it, that's how long the proposed Occupational Exposure to Crystalline Silica rule has been sitting at the Office of Management and Budget's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). OIRA is supposed to review proposed rules within 90 days.
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has been trying to strengthen rules limiting workers' exposure to silica since the 1980s, but has been stymied by industry opposition. Its current proposal has been mired in bureaucratic limbo since 2000.
Workers can be exposed to dangerous levels of silica dust through cutting, drilling, grinding, or otherwise disturbing material that might contain silica, such as during construction or mining jobs.
The hazard is one of the oldest known causes of work-related lung disease, yet OSHA does not have a comprehensive, protective standard on the books to address it. Studies also have found a strong association between silica exposure and lung cancer, kidney disease and autoimmune system disorders.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) estimates that 1.7 million workers in the U.S. are exposed to silica dust. Worse, those are just the cases we know about; many cases of silicosis go unreported. So, as OIRA sits on this rule, hundreds of workers have been killed and thousands sickened by preventable exposure to silica dust.
The hazards of silica exposure are nothing new. The recognition of respiratory problems from breathing in dust dates to ancient Greeks and Romans. Silica exposure, specifically, has been on the books in the U.S. since the early 1900s. Francis Perkins, who served as the U.S. Secretary of Labor in the Roosevelt administration and after whom the current Labor Department headquarters is named, convened a National Conference to Stop Silicosis in 1938. Yet, we still fail to protect workers from dangerous levels of silica dust. What will it take for OIRA to review a rule that could protect our workers from this known hazard?
Some states, such as New Jersey and California, have implemented safeguards, like banning dry cutting of masonry materials.
OSHA's proposed rule would lower the legal limit of silica dust that workers are permitted to breathe and would require specific control methods, such as wet cutting and ventilation in certain situations. These proposed control measures have been carefully designed to be simple and low-cost.
America's workers can't wait any longer for OIRA to move on this commonsense rule. It's time for a national standard. The Obama administration must push it through the bureaucratic logjam.
O'Connor is the executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health.