More American Workers Will Die as Silica Rule Delayed

lung x-ray

Two years ago next week, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sent to the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) a proposed standard to protect workers from silica dust.  1.7 million workers are exposed to silica on the job, mostly in construction, sandblasting, and mining. Silica has long been known to cause silicosis, a progressive, irreversible, but preventable lung disease that kills people.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reported that in 2007, 120 workers died from silicosis; 180-360 new cases of the disease are reported each year. Recent evidence shows that silica exposure also causes lung cancer. OSHA estimates that a lower allowable limit on silica in the workplace would prevent 60 deaths each year.  

OSHA’s current exposure limit, based on a consensus standard from the 1960s, is woefully out of date. OSHA first set out to adjust the standard in 1974; its current effort to update the silica standard began in earnest in 1997 and stalled between 2004 and 2008. In 2009, the Obama administration’s team at OSHA reignited the effort to protect workers from silica exposure. By Feb. 14, 2011, they had forwarded a proposed standard to OIRA, together with a regulatory impact assessment of the illnesses the standard would prevent and the compliance costs to industry.

And there the proposal has languished for two years. OIRA is authorized to review economically significant standards like the silica rule for up to 120 days (four months)  to determine whether the benefits of rules exceed their costs (even though the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that OSHA may not rely on cost-benefit analysis in deciding whether to protect worker health). In this case, OSHA has already found that the benefits of the silica rule clearly outweigh its costs, and had stricter silica rules been in effect during the two-year delay, 120 deaths could be avoided.

If OIRA disagrees with OSHA’s proposal to protect workers, it is supposed to return the rule to OSHA so the agency can fix it. But OIRA has not done that.  Instead, OIRA has held several meetings on the proposal, all but one with industry opponents of the rule. We don’t know what was discussed or why OIRA has blocked publication of the proposed rule. By holding up the standard, OIRA has put Americans in harm's way and has prevented a public conversation about how to best protect workers from silica.

It’s time for OIRA to stop blocking the silica rule.

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