A Victory for Silica Dust Exposed Workers?

Mike Elk

A CTA rail worker laying down track is in one of the many occupations at high risk of exposure to cancer-causing silica dust.

Today, after a much-crit­i­cized delay on issu­ing a rule to lim­it work­ers’ expo­sure to can­cer-caus­ing sil­i­ca dust, the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion put for­ward a pro­posed rule for pub­lic con­sid­er­a­tion. The U.S. Depart­ment of Labor’s Occu­pa­tion­al Safe­ty and Health Admin­is­tra­tion (OSHA) esti­mates that once the rule is in effect, it could save 700 lives a year and pre­vent near­ly 1,600 cas­es of sil­i­co­sis annually.

In an OSHA press release, Dr. David Michaels, assis­tant sec­re­tary of labor for occu­pa­tion­al safe­ty and health, com­ment­ed, Expo­sure to sil­i­ca can be dead­ly, and lim­it­ing that expo­sure is essen­tial. Every year, exposed work­ers not only lose their abil­i­ty to work, but also to breathe. This pro­pos­al is expect­ed to pre­vent thou­sands of deaths from sil­i­co­sis — an incur­able and pro­gres­sive dis­ease — as well as lung can­cer, oth­er res­pi­ra­to­ry dis­eases and kid­ney dis­ease. We’re look­ing for­ward to pub­lic com­ment on the proposal.”

Work­place safe­ty advo­cates applaud­ed the deci­sion. In a press release issued by the non-prof­it Nation­al Coun­cil for Occu­pa­tion­al Safe­ty and Health, exec­u­tive direc­tor Tom O’Con­ner not­ed that work­ers who are most exposed to sil­i­ca tend to be those least able to advo­cate for themselves.

Low-wage immi­grant work­ers and tem­po­rary work­ers are dis­pro­por­tion­al­ly rep­re­sent­ed in the indus­tries with sil­i­ca expo­sure — and are the most vul­ner­a­ble to retal­i­a­tion should they report poten­tial haz­ards, injuries or ill­ness­es,” O’Con­ner said. This new rule will help to pull them out of the shad­ows and make them safer at work. Every­one, regard­less of immi­gra­tion sta­tus, deserves a safe workplace.”

How­ev­er, some in orga­nized labor say the fight to enact the rule has just begun, as it will have to under­go a pub­lic com­ment peri­od before it is issued. In his response to the news of the rule, AFL-CIO Pres­i­dent Richard Trum­ka cautioned:

But this rule is only a pro­pos­al – work­ers exposed to sil­i­ca dust will only be pro­tect­ed when a final rule is issued. Some indus­try groups are cer­tain to attack the rule and try to stop it in its tracks. The AFL-CIO will do every­thing we can to see that does not hap­pen. We urge the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion to con­tin­ue mov­ing for­ward with the pub­lic rule­mak­ing process with­out delay. The final sil­i­ca rule should be issued as fast as human­ly pos­si­ble, to pro­tect the health and lives of Amer­i­can workers.

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Work­ing In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is cur­rent­ly a labor reporter at Politico.
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