WASHINGTON – The Obama administration on Friday proposed long-awaited rules for silica dust in the workplace that would cut exposure levels in half, amid mounting evidence that current standards do not protect workers from increased risk of lung cancer and silicosis, a progressive, incurable disease.
The rules developed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration would revise standards set more than 40 years ago for workers in a range of industries, including shipbuilding, railroads and construction. But with a domestic oil and gas boom driven by hydraulic fracturing, a production method that uses prodigious amounts of fine sand, a growing number of workers in the energy sector now risk exposure to high levels of respirable silica, a 2012 federal study showed.
Under the new standards, the legal limit for workplace silica dust concentrations in all industries would be 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air, averaged over an eight-hour work day. Until now, separate standards existed for the construction sector at 250 micrograms of respirable silica, and for general industry and maritime at 100 micrograms.
About 1.8 million construction workers and another 320,000 in general industry and maritime are exposed to silica dust, according to OSHA. If the new rules go into effect, they would save nearly 700 lives per year and prevent 1,600 new cases of silicosis annually, the agency estimated.
“Every year, exposed workers not only lose their ability to work, but also to breathe,” said David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health. “This proposal is expected to prevent thousands of deaths from silicosis, as well as lung cancer, other respiratory diseases and kidney disease.”
But some business groups criticized the proposed new standards as unnecessary. “Because our companies have successfully protected their workers under the current permissible exposure limit (PEL), we do not believe there is a proven need to lower that level and disagree with OSHA’s proposal to cut that limit in half,” said Mark Ellis, president of the National Industrial Sand Association.