OSHA’s Crystalline Silica Notice of Proposed Rulemaking

OSHA has announced that it is issuing a proposed rule aimed at curbing silicosis – an incurable and progressive disease-lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and kidney disease in American workers. The proposal seeks to lower worker exposure to crystalline silica, a deadly dust which needlessly kills hundreds of workers and sickens thousands more each year.

This is a proposed rule and not a final rule. OSHA is inviting and strongly encouraging the public to participate in the process of developing a final rule through submitting written comments and participating in public hearings that are scheduled to begin in Washington, DC in early March.

OSHA’s objective is to develop a standard that not only protects workers, but also makes sense in the workplace. In the process, OSHA especially hopes to hear from workers and employers who have experience protecting workers from silica-related diseases.

Exposure to silica dust can be extremely hazardous, and limiting that exposure is essential. Every year, affected workers not only lose their ability to work, but also to breathe. OSHA estimates that the proposed rule will save nearly 700 lives per year and prevent 1,600 new cases of silicosis annually, once the full effects of the rule are realized.

Exposure to airborne silica dust occurs in operations involving cutting, sawing, drilling and crushing of concrete, brick, block and other stone products and in operations using sand products, such as in glass manufacturing, foundries and sand blasting.

It is known how to lower silica exposure. Today, many employers across the country apply common sense, inexpensive and effective control measures that protect workers’ lives and lungs-like keeping the material wet so dust doesn’t become airborne or using a vacuum to collect dust at the point where it is created before workers can inhale it. Tools that include these controls are readily available, and the rule is designed to give employers flexibility in selecting ways to meet the new standard.

This proposal is long overdue. OSHA’s current standards for protecting workers from silica exposure are dangerously out-of-date and do not adequately protect worker health. The current standards are more than 40 years old, and they are based on research from the 1960’sand even earlier. They do not reflect the most recent scientific evidence.

Since current silica standards were issued in 1971, numerous studies have found increased risk of lung cancer among silica-exposed workers. The U.S. National Toxicology Program, the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health have all identified respirable silica as a human carcinogen because of lung cancer in workers exposed to the dust. This proposed rule brings worker protections into the 21st century.

The proposed rulemaking includes two separate standards-one for general industry and maritime employment and one for construction. These standards are based on extensive review of scientific and technical evidence, consideration of current industry consensus standards and outreach by OSHA to stakeholders, including public stakeholder meetings, conference and meetings with employer an employee organizations.

Stakeholders are asked to participate in this rulemaking effort to help develop effective solutions that will protect workers.

To provide the public with additional information about the proposal and ways to prevent silica-related disease, a website has been created which you can find by going to www.osha.gov/silica. The website includes five fact sheets that explain proposals as well as the process for participating in the rulemaking. It also has a link to OSHA’s new “Deadly Dust” video about the tragic effects of silicosis and the readily available methods to limit worker’s exposure to silica.

To further demonstrate the historic commitment of the United States Department of Labor to preventing silicosis, included is a video entitled “Stop Silicosis,” featuring a former Secretary of Labor – in this case Frances Perkins, who was President Franklin Roosevelt’s Labor Secretary. The video was made in 1938.

It is seventy-five years since Frances Perkins committed the Department of Labor to ending silicosis in the United States. This proposal is an important step forward in fulfilling this commitment.