White House Inaction on Silica Is Deadly for Workers

FILE - In this Nov. 8, 2012 file photo, workers continue work on street car track construction on Loyola Avenue in New Orlean
FILE - In this Nov. 8, 2012 file photo, workers continue work on street car track construction on Loyola Avenue in New Orleans. After months of construction, road closures and flying dust, New Orleans is about ready to open its new streetcar line near the Superdome, just in time for the Super Bowl. Crews have worked for months to lay tracks through one of the business district’s busiest corridors to connect by trolley the French Quarter and the Superdome. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

Tom Ward was 13 when his father came home from what would be his last day of work. Ward's father "barely made it through the door, fell to the floor and, between tears, said, 'I can't do it anymore.'"

Later that year, at age 39, Ward's father suffocated to death -- the effect of silicosis. His work as a sandblaster had exposed him to cancer-causing silica dust.

Every year, silica dust takes hundreds of American lives and makes thousands more, mostly construction workers, sick. But it doesn't have to be that way. Two years ago tomorrow, Feb. 14, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) submitted a draft proposed rule to reduce exposure to life-threatening silica dust to the White House's Office of Management and Budget. The review was supposed to take 90 days -- but two years later, the draft rule is still there, languishing in regulatory limbo while workers continue to be exposed to the deadly dust.

For decades, working people and their unions have fought to make jobs safer. And we've made great progress, winning job safety standards that have saved hundreds of thousands of lives. But at every step toward progress, we faced the same obstacles that are blocking stronger silica dust limits: well-funded knee-jerk opposition by business trade groups and industry associations.

Even when we get laws and regulations on the books, unscrupulous employers cut corners and violate them. Workers who report job hazards or injuries are fired or disciplined. Employers contract out dangerous work to avoid responsibility. As a result, every single day of every year, 13 workers are killed on the job. And every year workers suffer 7.6 million to 11.4 million job injuries and illnesses.

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. You see, I come from a three-generation coal-mining family in a coal-mining town. We know what work can do to a person's lungs.

The delay in job safety protections for silica is inexcusable and heartless. It's time for industry opponents to stand down and time for the White House to stand up for working men and women. It's a matter of life and death.