Silica is found in the construction, maritime and numerous other industries. OSHA estimates about 2 million construction workers in more than 600,000 workplaces are exposed to it. The exposure level for more than 40 percent of those workers is greater than that provided by the new rule, according to the Labor Department. In maritime and general industry, including dental labs, foundries and railroads, more than 100,000 workers face exposure levels higher than permissible under the new rule.
Among other things, the regulation limits exposure to crystalline silica to an average of 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air over an eight-hour shift and mandates ventilation practices.
“This rule will save lives,” said Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez. “It will enable workers to earn a living without sacrificing their health. It builds upon decades of research and a lengthy stakeholder engagement process – including the consideration of thousands of public comments – to finally give workers the kind of protection they deserve.”
While Perez focused on the potential lives saved, the National Association of Manufacturers, focused on the potential cost to companies.
“Not only does this rule rely on appallingly out-of-date economic data, it also drastically underestimates the exorbitant costs that will be inflicted on manufacturers and the entire economy and requires mandates that simply are not feasible to achieve,” National Association of Manufacturers President and CEO Jay Timmons said in a statement. “As a result, small and medium-sized manufacturers could be forced to close their doors while others will be saddled with crushing regulations.”
Calling the rule “fundamentally flawed,” he vowed to press Congress to block it, saying it would cost billions to implement.
In a call with reporters, Perez told the story of thousands of workers, including many African Americans, who fled the South in the 1930s for a better life and found work on the Hawk’s Nest tunnel project in West Virginia. The workers were ordered to drill through a mountain made of silica.
“They thought it would be their ticket to the middle class,” he said. “For all too many it was the ticket to an early death.”
Hundreds, perhaps thousands of workers died, Perez said, leading to an outcry and a set of reforms that did not go far enough and “were next to impossible to enforce.”
Silica regulations with mandatory, enforceable exposure limits were enacted in 1971, he added, “but the truth is…the 1970s standards were quite literally out of date when the moment they went into effect.”
Today’s rule, Perez said, reflects today’s science.