The Obama Administration Just Took A Huge Step On Worker Safety

It's known as the silica rule, and it's a big frigging deal.
The silica rule has been in the works for four decades.
The silica rule has been in the works for four decades.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press

After an extraordinarily long wait -- 45 years, to be exact -- the government is finally ramping up protections for workers from a carcinogen we've been aware of for centuries. The reform marks the most significant change in workplace health law during the Obama era, and officials project it will prevent 600 deaths per year.

On Thursday, the Labor Department announced that it will be implementing what's known as the silica rule, bringing a decades-long lobbying fight in Washington to an end. Crystalline silica is a dust that comes from sand and granite, and it has been debilitating lungs for as long as workers have been cutting rock, brick and concrete. Under the new rule, the feds will be vastly lowering the amount of silica dust that companies can legally expose workers to.

Occupational health experts, labor unions and sick workers have been prodding for the tougher standard for decades, only to see the reform stalled under a succession of different presidents. But their hopes were buoyed during President Barack Obama’s first term when the Labor Department developed a proposal and the White House signaled it would carry it out.

With Thursday's announcement, that reform appears all but certain, unless Republicans who oppose it can manage to stymie its implementation through the appropriations process.

“When I became an apprentice, I didn’t think I would be exposed to the same hazard that killed my father. They knew how to control the hazard 40 years before my father died,” Tom Ward, a bricklayer from Detroit, said Thursday. Speaking of the new rule, Ward said, “All of you who have been suffering, your voice has been heard.”

Ward delivered those remarks at the International Masonry Institute, in Bowie, Maryland, where he introduced Labor Secretary Tom Perez at a press conference on the new rule.

Perez began his own remarks with an apology to Ward.

“I guess what I should say at the outset is I’m sorry it took this long,” Perez said. “It wasn’t for a lack of trying.”

For many years, the silica rule was pretty much a victim of its own significance. As Marianne LeVine explains in Politico, meeting the requirements of the new silica rule will require an investment from employers, which is how it got bottled up in Washington for so long. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration says it will cost employers about $1 billion to implement, though some industry groups say the tab will be much greater than that.

However, the diseases and ailments caused by silica dust -- silicosis, lung cancer, kidney disease and emphysema, to name just a few -- are so costly that OSHA says the new regulations will create net savings of between $3.8 and $7.7 billion. Citing those numbers Thursday, Perez said the mere discussion of dollars and cents on the issue made him uncomfortable: All along, regulators and industry have been putting a price on workers’ lungs and lives.

“The evidence is overwhelming. The science is there. We have literally studied this issue to death,” Perez said, noting that sickness related to silica dust was even evident in Ancient Rome. “We've known about these dangers not just for years, and not just for centuries, but for millennia.”

Federal officials set the original silica standard when OSHA was created, in 1971, under then-President Richard Nixon. But even then, health experts thought the standard was too lax, allowing masonry and construction workers to breathe unhealthy amounts of silica. As David Michaels, the head of OSHA, put it Thursday, “the standard was out of date the day we promulgated it.” Those original standards, which were based on studies from the 1960s, haven’t changed until now.

For construction worksites and shipyards, the new standard will cut the allowable level of silica dust by an aggressive 80 percent. For other worksites, it will cut the allowable level by half. The new standards were first recommended by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, a division of the Centers for Disease Control, 40 years ago.

OSHA says that roughly 2.3 million U.S. workers -- the vast majority of them in construction -- are exposed to airborne silica dust, particles of which are 100 times smaller than a common grain of sand.

For businesses, the new silica rules will mean upgrading to equipment that can better capture dust -- for instance, grinders with vacuums attached to them -- and wetting down materials that are being cut to minimize dust. Simply having workers wear respirators, OSHA says, is not sufficient. The agency created a list of precautions that construction firms can take to minimize silica exposure. If firms opt not to follow them, they will have to measure silica levels on the worksite and submit them for testing to make sure they're in compliance.

The stipulations of the rule will be gradually phased in starting next year.

In a statement, the National Association of Manufacturers, a trade lobby, said the new rule was "fundamentally flawed," relied on "appallingly out-of-date economic data" and "requires mandates that simply are not feasible to achieve." "As a result, small and medium-sized manufacturers could be forced to close their doors while others will be saddled with crushing regulations," said Jay Timmons, the group's president.

Asked about such claims, Michaels said he believes industries typically overestimate the true cost of new regulations. He argued that the real cost of the silica rule is actually "quite low," and he predicted that it will ultimately be even cheaper to implement than it seems. What he wouldn't underestimate was the impact the rule will have on ordinary workers' health.

"This is the most important health standard OSHA has issued in decades," he said.

Popular in the Community