'Life-Saving' Silica-Dust Protection Rule Languishes At White House For Two Years

President Barack Obama gestures during a speech on education, Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013, at the Decatur Community Recreation Ce
President Barack Obama gestures during a speech on education, Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013, at the Decatur Community Recreation Center in Decatur, Ga. The president is traveling to promote his economic and educational plan that he highlighted in his State of the Union address. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON -- A work safety rule that scientists say would save lives in the construction and mining industries is still caught in red tape at the White House after being sent there for review two years ago.

Known as the silica rule, the measure put forth by the Labor Department would further restrict workers' exposure to crystalline silica, a dust found in sand and granite that's been proven to damage lungs and lead to respiratory disease. Mining and construction companies have opposed the rule due to the high projected cost of the tighter regulations, which the Labor Department has pegged at more than $100 million.

Workplace rules are supposed to be reviewed by the White House within 90 days. Although lengthy delays are common, a period of two years is unusual.

"I think it's disturbing," Keith Wrightson, a workplace safety expert at Public Citizen, a non-profit consumer advocacy group, said of the delay. "It's hard to tell who's holding this thing up."

The holdup on the silica rule has exasperated workplace safety advocates, many of whom hope that the White House will move ahead with the rule now that the election is over and the president is in his second term. The White House does not comment on rule review as a matter of policy.

"Any further delays in the rulemaking process will only add to the death toll," said Terry O'Sullivan, president of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, many of whose members work in construction.

The delay has also prompted sharp criticism from at least one major Obama backer who doesn't often have such harsh words for the White House. Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO union federation, stumped for the president regularly on the campaign trail last year, but in a blog post on HuffPost Wednesday Trumka called the delay of the rule "inexcusable and heartless."

"I've seen how hard it is to take on the heavyweight corporate lobbyists who hold so much sway in Washington. But I've also seen what a worker's struggle for breath looks like," wrote Trumka, who comes from a coal mining family. He called the delay "a matter of life and death."

In fact, safety advocates were upset by the delay even a year ago, when 300 occupational health experts, labor leaders and other interested parties signed a letter to the White House urging the president to move the rule along. As the letter noted, an estimated 1.7 million workers are exposed to silica and 200 workers die from silicosis each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Silicosis is a respiratory disease that's been linked to lung cancer and often gets compared to coal worker's pneumoconiosis, better known as black lung disease. Last year, a doctor told HuffPost that silicosis was a "silent disease" that often starts in the throat as a mere annoyance, leading to chest tightness and difficulty breathing.

One sufferer of silicosis, Leonard Serafin, penned a letter to the White House in support of the tighter regulations.

"I never dreamed I would have to spend my retirement years in this debilitating manner," wrote Serafin, a Californian who breathed silica dust in his years laying crushed rock and gravel for railroads. "I find it difficult to attend social events such as concerts and plays with my family because of my chronic cough. Even coughing while standing at a cash register line at a retail store causes people to distance themselves from me. ... When I exert myself, my daily coughing becomes a spastic type of cough, which leaves me exhausted, breathless with chest pain."

"In good conscience, how can you put a price tag before the safety of U.S. workers?" he asked.

There are already limits on how much silica workers can breathe, but experts say the standards are too lax. The federal government has been working toward tightening them for roughly a decade.

The proposal the Labor Department has sent to the White House has not been made public, but experts say it is probably modeled on a California state rule that requires companies to take certain safety precautions, like providing better ventilation at worksites and wetting down rock before workers cut it, limiting dust clouds. The proposal must be released by the White House before the public can submit comments on it.

Several trade groups have voiced concerns about the costs of the new rules, including the National Association of Manufacturers. An official with that lobby recently told NPR that the measure would cost the industry "billions," and that it isn't necessary given that deaths from silicosis have dropped significantly compared to decades ago.

Wrightson, of Public Citizen, said he's hopeful the rule will be released to the public soon, especially given the progressive edge in Obama's inauguration speech and State of the Union address.

"I think the president has been pretty bold in his statements over the last two to four weeks," said Wrightson. "It shows progress. But we can't wait any longer."



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