On April 6th, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced that a rule protecting construction workers from the harmful effects of silica will be delayed until September. The rule was announced on March 24th, 2016, and put into effect on June 23rd, 2016, after which companies were given one to five years to comply with the new standards. Construction companies had one year to update their standards to meet the requirements of the OSHA. Now because of the delay, companies have until September 23rd to reduce workers’ exposure to silica.
Delay After Delay
And this isn’t the first time the rule has been delayed. The OSHA attempted to alter the silica standards in 2011, but the Obama administration decided to extend the review process by more than two years. In the end, it took five years to implement the rule, which required employers to reduce workers’ exposure to silica by half. In fact, rules regulating silica exposure haven’t been updated since the 1970s. Currently, manufacturers are permitted to have 100 micrograms of silica per cubic meter of air and construction companies can sometimes have as much as 250 micrograms.
Specific Provisions of the Rule
Under the Obama-era regulation, those numbers, or the permissible exposure limit (PEL), would be reduced to 50 micrograms during an eight-hour workday. The rule has different requirements for different industries. While the construction industry originally was given a year to comply, general industry and the maritime industries had two years to comply with the rule. Hydraulic fracking would also have two years to comply with all provisions except those pertaining to engineering controls, which go into full effect on June 23rd, 2021.
The rule also enforces certain measures to reduce the PEL, such as provisions requiring companies to use engineering controls (e.g. water or ventilation). And where such controls aren’t available, companies must provide respirators. The regulation further mandates that employers draw up a plan for reducing risk in addition to providing medical exams to those who have been exposed to high levels of silica. To help prevent further exposure, the rule requires that workers be educated about silica-related risks.
Lives at Stake
According to the OSHA, after its full implementation, the rule could save over 600 lives and prevent over 900 new cases of silicosis each year. That’s in addition to the net benefits of $7.7 billion every year.
Exposure to silica is a serious matter, affecting 2.3 million workers, a majority of which are in the construction industry. The silica rule is meant to reduce workers’ exposure to the deathly effects of crystalline silica dust, which can cause silicosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and kidney disease and lung cancer.
This most recent delay could have seriously negative effects on workers’ health. According to AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, “The labor movement has fought for decades to win this lifesaving rule, and any further delay is unacceptable. The longer the Trump administration delays, the more workers will suffer and die.” He added, “This action alone will lead to an additional 160 worker deaths.”
According to the OSHA’s statement, the rule is being delayed so that companies have more time to receive “educational materials for employers and enforcement guidance for […] staff.”
Looking forward, we can only hope that this delay doesn’t lead to further delays or even repeal.