Silica Dust – Like Asbestos – Has Killed Thousands; the Obama Administration Aims to Stop That Trend

Ever since former Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins first stepped into office in 1938, concerns over exposure to crystalline silica dust have plagued the American workplace. Yesterday’s ruling has been – literally – decades in the making; it was back in 1974 when the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) last sought to update “safe” exposure levels. The change has prompted several outraged chemical companies and lobbying organization to fight the decision in court.

For over 4 decades, vicious lobbying efforts from Big Business – chemical conglomerates, construction giants, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, to name a few – have kept the laws right where they were: stymied in 1971 – at levels harmful to the general public, but especially lethal for the millions of men and women who work in construction trades.

Yesterday, the Department of Labor, in conjunction with the OSHA, changed those regulations for the first time in over 45 years. It is thought that the new regulations will be one of the Obama administration’s key workplace health and safety initiatives.

The Decades-Long Death Toll of Silica

For those in the construction industry – including workers in glass-making, foundries, and hydraulic fracking – high exposure rates to silica dust has been a major concern. The carcinogenic dust has long been linked to deadly and incurable lung condition called silicosis, and also to lung cancer. But because the mineral is so cost-effective, and because alternatives would cost Big Business billions of dollars in lost profit, corporations have lobbied tirelessly to keep the mineral in industry use – all at the expense of the hardworking men and women on the front lines, who are exposed to its dust regularly.

OSHA’s decision on Thursday to limit the exposure levels of silica dust comes on the heels of Congress’s unanimous decision to pass reform of the outdated Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) back in December, which kept some 80,000 substances – many of them harmful – in commerce without any or limited regulation. The new exposure limit changes the ‘safe level’ by 400 percent from 250 micrograms of silica dust per cubic centimeters of air to 50 micrograms.

In a statement, OSHA estimated that 2.3 million U.S. workers are exposed to silica dust annually, with the vast majority of them in construction. The updated exposure rule would save an estimated 600 lives and prevent 900 cases of silica-related illnesses each and every year. With numbers like these, such a decision doesn’t seem hard to make at all – it seems like common sense.

The change in regulation also requires employers to keep track of and monitor silica levels in the workplace, to use specific methods to reduce employee exposure, and to provide medical exams for workers, among other measures.

U.S. Industry Not Happy with New Exposure Limit, Vows to Fight Back

For whole generations, Big Business has skirted around their responsibility to the health and workplace safety of their employees – especially when it comes to exposure to harmful substances such as silica and asbestos. And as one can imagine, the lobbying giants of Big Chemical who have fought to keep the carcinogenic dust in commerce have not responded favorably to OSHA’s construction industry mandate.

Some industry groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Petroleum Institute (API), and the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), and others, have vowed to fight the decision in court and in the U.S. Congress. They have called the rule “unnecessary,” warning that compliance will cost them billions of dollars. Such entities have also emphasized that OSHA should focus its time and energy enforcing existing regulations, not creating new ones.

The groups who are fighting the decision also claimed the rule will be impossible to comply with because of the limitations in measuring silica levels on-site. Further, they have said such changes are unnecessary because silica-related deaths have dropped by more than 90 percent since the early 1960s. But when one follows that logic, it’s easy to see that 90 percent is not 100 percent – people are dying, and the problem is still a problem.

What the Change Means for a Chemical Industry Corrupt with Power

One can only hope that the new regulations such as those made on Thursday will not end here with crystalline silica dust. There are still over 80,000 unregistered substances and chemicals that are used regularly in U.S. manufacturing, construction, and other trades; this includes asbestos – a deadly mineral fiber which kills over 11,000 Americans each and every year.

U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez, who was instrumental in the new regulation, called the deaths of thousands of workers over the last century from silica-related illnesses "a scourge to our nation's history." U.S. representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) said, "I applaud Secretary Perez and the Department of Labor for taking this step to ensure the health and wellbeing of employees across the country."

Time will tell how many lives the new limits will save, but one hopes that more stringent industry regulations are soon to follow – especially as workplace illness quickly becomes the 7th leading cause of death in the United States.

The rule takes effect immediately, but construction companies have until June 2017 to comply. Other industries were given an additional year.

Sokolove Law Team

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Last modified: July 21, 2023