Status of Regulatory Efforts
On March 24, 2016, OSHA announced the final rule to protect workers from expsoure to respirable crystalline silica. Learn more here, read the press release and watch the videos - "USDOL Announces Adoption of New Silica Standard" and "Stop Silicosis (2016)".
The health risks associated with exposure to dust containing crystalline silica are well documented. In 1700, Dr. Bernardino Ramazzini, considered the founder of occupational medicine, identified evidence of silicosis in stone cutters. Roughly 200 years later, Dr. Alice Hamilton, a physician whose work resulted in significant safety and health reforms, documented silica related illnesses among granite workers. In the early 1900s, granite cutters in Vermont recognized the connection between the dust they were inhaling and the resulting fatal illnesses. By the 1930s they had successfully bargained for the installation of ventilation equipment in their work sheds.
Unfortunately, workers in other industries and parts of the country were still at risk. In the early 1930s, the Gauley Bridge tunnel project became the site of one of the worst industrial disasters in U.S. history. Hundreds of workers died from silicosis while building the tunnel and another 1,500 were reported to have contracted the disease within two years of working on the project. This disaster prompted a Congressional call to action. Watch the video to hear from the workers and elected officials to learn more.
The federal government responded and in 1938 the Secretary of Labor, Francis Perkins, held a National Silicosis Conference and initiated a campaign to “Stop Silicosis,” stating: “Our job is one of applying techniques and principles to every known silica dust hazard in American industry. We know the methods of control – let us put them in practice.” Watch the video to learn more about the campaign.
Despite these efforts, silica exposure continued to be a serious health hazard for workers in the construction industry. As new products, tools, and work practices have been introduced, new means of exposure were created. An article in a leading construction trade magazine summed up the situation: “With the advent and increased use of dry cutting, drilling and grinding of concrete and masonry material in construction, we often see workers operating in a cloud of dust with no respiratory protection or safety measures to prevent airborne dust. Exposure levels in settings like construction sites are highly variable for airborne silica dust, which poses a significant risk to workers.”[*]
In 1996, the Secretary of Labor began a new campaign to raise awareness and encourage safer work practices called “It’s Not Just Dust,” and initiated a Special Emphasis Program (SEP) on Silicosis to provide guidance to “reduce and eliminate the workplace incidence of silicosis from exposure to crystalline silica.” In addition, OSHA, NIOSH, and the American Lung Association held a conference “The Campaign to End Silicosis.”
Watch excerpts from the 1996 Conference to learn more from the leadership at that time…
- Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich
- Assistant Secretary for OSHA, Joe Dear
- President of the American Lung Association, Dr, Alfred Munzer
- Director of NIOSH, Dr. Linda Rosenstock
The Conference and SEP raised awareness of the hazard and prompted several stakeholder groups, as well as safety and health professionals, to call on OSHA to develop and implement a comprehensive silica standard for the construction industry. OSHA responded by adding silica to its regulatory agenda, drafting a silica standard, and conducting a small business review as required by The Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Act (SBREFA).
Although the silica standard took 19 years to go through the rulemaking process, every Labor Secretary since 1996 – under both Republican and Democratic Administrations – kept controlling silica dust and protecting workers a regulatory priority.
In February 2011, more than 70 years after the Gauley Dam disaster and roughly 15 years after the initiation of the Special Emphasis program on silica, OSHA sent a draft standard to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for review before publishing the standard for public comment, as required under Executive Order 12866. Under this order, the OMB's focus is to review "economically significant" rules and the review must be completed within 120 days.
On April 19, 2012, the Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions held a full committee hearing – “Time Takes Its Toll: Delays in OSHA’s Standard Setting Process and the Impact on Worker Safety,” which addressed delays in the regulatory process. Witnesses included Tom Ward, a member of the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers from Local 1 Michigan, who testified about the loss of his father to silicosis and concerns about continued worker exposures today. Click here to read Mr. Ward’s statement. To learn more: watch the video of the hearing or read all of the testimony.
On August 23, 2013 and after more than two years, the OMB released the proposed silica standard back to OSHA. OSHA issued a press release announcing a proposed rule aimed at curbing lung cancer, silicosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and kidney disease in America's workers. The proposal sought to lower worker exposure to crystalline silica, which kills hundreds of workers and sickens thousands more each year.
[*] Masonry Magazine, “The Big Deal About Silica Dust Collection,” by Brian Delahaut vice president of MK Diamond Products, Inc., December 2009.