WASHINGTON ― If Tom Ward had to die from his work, he’d rather fall off a scaffold than endure the slow death his father did from the debilitating lung disease silicosis.
“I would choose to go much quicker,” he said, “rather than to have my family watch me suffer.”
Ward fears that other workers will face the same suffocating illness as his father, thanks to the regulatory rollback underway by the Trump administration.
Ward’s father spent several years working as a sandblaster in Michigan. It was most likely on that job that he breathed a lethal amount of crystalline silica, a carcinogenic dust that comes from sand and granite. Excessive silica has been ruining workers’ lungs for as long as rock and concrete have been cut. Frances Perkins, U.S. labor secretary under Franklin D. Roosevelt, spoke publicly of the dangers of silica back in the late 1930s.
After numerous efforts under other presidents failed, the Obama administration finally tightened the regulations covering silica last year, further restricting the amount of dust that employers can legally expose workers to. The tougher standards were 45 years in the making, the subject of in-depth scientific research and intense lobbying by business groups and safety experts. When the rules were finalized in March 2016, occupational health experts hailed them as a life-saving milestone.
But now the enforcement of the rules has been delayed ― and the rules themselves could be in jeopardy.
Last week, the Trump administration announced that it was pushing back the implementation of the new silica regulations. For now, the delay is just three months ― from late June to late September, since “additional guidance is necessary due to the unique nature of the requirements,” as the Labor Department put it. A spokeswoman said the agency wouldn’t comment beyond that.
But to occupational health experts who’ve waited years for the tighter rules, the new delay casts a cloud of uncertainty over their future. The leading home-building trade group and other business lobbying groups have sued to halt the regulations, saying they are too costly for employers. Defending the silica rule would now be the responsibility of the Trump administration, which has eagerly dismantled one Obama-era regulation after another at the urging of corporations. (The rule could also be subject to an appropriations rider by the GOP-controlled Congress.)
While the administration has not signaled that it intends to reverse the silica rule, it has issued an executive order directing all agencies to review the regulations currently on their books, presumably for potential watering down or scrapping. Trump’s own labor nominee, Alexander Acosta, cited that order during his confirmation hearing as one reason he would not yet commit to enforcing the silica rule if he becomes labor secretary.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) noted the huge public health implications at stake. “You can’t tell me whether or not, high on your list of priorities, would be to protect a rule that keeps people from being poisoned,” she told Acosta.
“I never dreamed I would have to spend my retirement years in this debilitating manner.”
The delay of the new silica regulations was not a surprise to Ward, given the Trump administration’s promises to deregulate businesses in order to boost hiring. But it was nevertheless painful to see. Ward now leads training at the Michigan Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers Union, a personal mission given that his father died at age 39 after “an awful few years” of suffering from silicosis.
“Knowing it was 100 percent preventable is the part that really hurts,” he said.
Silica has been called the “silent killer.” It’s not visible to the naked eye ― particles can be one hundred times smaller than a grain of sand ― and the effects on the lungs are cumulative. But there are clear ways to curb exposure to silica, like wetting down rock that’s being cut, installing ventilation or dust-collecting equipment on the worksite, and wearing respiratory equipment designed to filter out the dust.
When the proper precautions aren’t taken, the results can be debilitating. Railroad worker Leonard Serafin shared the story of his own battle with silicosis in a letter his family provided to The Huffington Post in 2012.
At the time, the Obama White House was sitting on the silica rule, and advocates worried that the reforms might not be finished before Obama left office. Serafin had worked as a trackman on a railroad for 32 years, laying out the crushed rock and gravel in which the tracks were laid. He said the work led to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and a litany of other lung maladies.
“I never dreamed I would have to spend my retirement years in this debilitating manner,” Serafin wrote. “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.”
Although U.S. regulators had been aware of silica’s dangers for decades, it wasn’t until 1971 that the federal government imposed legal limits on workers’ exposure to it: 100 micrograms per cubic meter for laborers in most industries, and 250 micrograms for those working in construction and shipyards. Many experts believed those limits were too meager, however. The caps weren’t lowered to the 50 micrograms recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention until Obama’s presidency.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has estimated that the new rules would cut down silica exposure for roughly 2.3 million workers, preventing an estimated 600 deaths annually. Extrapolating on that data, the AFL-CIO labor federation says even the three-month delay in enforcement “will lead to an additional 160 worker deaths.”
David Michaels, the head of OSHA under Obama, called the reform “the most important health standard OSHA has issued in decades.”
But in the eyes of the construction industry, it’s one of the most expensive. OSHA says that instituting the new controls would cost businesses an estimated $511 million annually. Meanwhile, industry lobbies say the real cost to them would be in the billions each year ― most of it due to additional equipment and labor.
While praising the Trump administration’s decision, a consortium of construction industry trade groups urged Trump to extend the delay well beyond the original three months, saying it “remains concerned about the overall feasibility of the standard in construction and has requested that the agency delay enforcement for a year.”
Supporters of the rule note that those upfront costs don’t take into account the long-term financial benefits to workers and society. Preventing disability and death saves money, after all.
OSHA estimated that the reforms would have a net benefit of $7.7 billion each year, largely due to savings on health care and lost productivity. The Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank, calls the silica rule a “case study” in how seemingly expensive safety regulations can have economic benefits over the long term.
Ward thought the debate over the rule’s financial costs had finally been put to rest. For years, he heard dollars and cents being weighed against lives lost or saved. Now that he’s hearing it again, he’s worried about the bricklayers who will come up after him.
“The rule really was to prevent future illnesses,” said Ward. “It may be too late for me and my generation. This is about the future generation of craft workers.”