For the first time in 45 years, the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) is poised to increase safety standards for worker exposure to the silica dust that can cause deadly and incurable lung disease. A rule that would cut in half the amount of silica dust to which most workers could be exposed — and limit levels further for construction and maritime workers — is expected to be finalized in February.
The industries that must comply with the new rule hoped to derail the new standard, including with an amendment to the 2016 federal spending bill that would have prevented any spending to implement the new rules and required more study of silica’s health effects. While in the bill up to the eleventh hour, this rider has been dropped from the budget released late Tuesday that is expected to be voted on later this week.
According to OSHA, silica exposure is a serious threat to nearly 2 million U.S. workers, including more than 100,000 whose jobs involve stone cutting, rock drilling and blasting and foundry work. Workers installing and manufacturing countertops are also at risk, along with those at hydraulic fracturing — or fracking—sites where industrial sand is used in oil and gas extraction and has been found to expose workers excessively. OSHA estimates that the new safety limits will save nearly 700 lives and prevent 1,600 new cases of silicosis each year. OSHA also estimates that when fully implemented, the rule would result in annual financial benefits of $2.8 to $4.7 billion, benefits that far exceed the rule’s annual costs.
“It’s often been said it’s a disease that’s been known since antiquity. The fact that silica causes cancer is more recent information,” Mike Wright, United Steelworkers director of health and safety, tells In These Times. “There’s no question the new standard would save lives. The longer it takes to get into place, the more people are exposed,” says Wright.
The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer has considered crystalline silica — particles small enough to inhale — a human lung carcinogen since 1997. The U.S. National Toxicology Program’s Report on Carcinogens classified respirable silica as a known human carcinogen in 2000. In addition to lung cancer, inhaled silica dust can cause silicosis, a serious, incurable and potentially fatal lung disease. In the lungs, silica dust can scar lung tissue and reduce lungs’ ability to process oxygen and increase susceptibility to other lung diseases, including tuberculosis.
OSHA’s existing silica standard, what’s known as a permissible exposure level, has not been updated since the agency was established. The Department of Labor’s concern about these exposures goes back to the 1930s when Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins sounded the alarm about silicosis’ toll on American workers. The new rule, which would cut most workers’ permissible exposure levels to 50 micrograms per cubic meter over the course of an 8‑hour workday from the currently allowed 100, was proposed in 2013. It followed reviews begun in 2003 by both the Department of Labor and Small Business Administration. Now, after public comment periods and meetings with industry and labor groups, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is ready to finalize the rule.
Blocking the new standard?
Despite this long history, support from the Department of Labor and research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) showing ongoing adverse affects of silica, industry groups mounted vigorous opposition to the new safety standard. An amendment or rider to what’s known as the omnibus spending bill — the legislation that will fund the federal government’s 2016 budget — was introduced by Senator John Hoeven (R‑North Dakota). (North Dakota is among the states with the most fracking sites.) It would have stopped the Department of Labor from spending any money to implement the new silica rule and, among other measures, called for a new study by the National Academy of Sciences to justify the reduced exposure level.
“The Occupational Health and Safety Administration’s (OSHA’s) proposal to reduce the current exposure limit is not supported by sound science and will create a tremendous financial burden for many industrial sectors,” said the National Stone, Sand and Gravel Association in a statement posted to its website.
The association is among the industry groups and companies that have lobbied the White House on this issue, trying to persuade the administration that existing regulations are sufficient and that more stringent standards would be burdensome to business. Between March 2011 and 2014, OMB meeting records show 11 meetings about occupational exposure to crystalline silica. All but one were with industry groups.
In an emailed statement, Sen. Hoeven’s office explained that the amendment “would not only ensure that the latest science is used by OSHA, but also that the agency conducts a long-overdue study of the impact of current silica regulations on small businesses,” noting that the most recent Small Business Administration report on silica was completed in 2003 and that silica-related deaths dropped 93 percent between 1968 and 2007.
But as NIOSH itself has written:
There are no surveillance data in the U.S. that permit us to estimate accurately the number of individuals with silicosis. The true extent of the problem is probably greater than indicated by available data. Undercounting of silicosis occurs because there are no national medical monitoring surveillance programs, and there can be a failure to diagnose silicosis or record it as a cause of death on a death certificate. Silicosis often presents long after workers have left causative jobs. Such cases may not be detected in Bureau of Labor statistics as occupational disease and will not be detected if disease presents after retirement.
“We’re talking about people’s lives,” says Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists Center for Science and Democracy. “What gets lost in so many of these discussions is that this is fundamentally about public health and safety protections that are genuinely in the public interest. They’re not going to be done by businesses on their own,” says Rosenberg.
“If you wait for this kind of evidence people will be dead,” he noted of one of the rider’s requirements.
But, says National Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health acting executive director Jessica Martinez, striking a note of hope via email, “Given the overwhelming evidence about the hazards of silica, we are hopeful that the final budget agreed to by the White House and Congress will not interfere with OSHA’s scientifically sound, economically practical new silica standard.” Her wish was realized in the budget bill agreement reached last night that dropped the rider.
Additional riders’ impact on public and occupational health
But this is not the only amendment attached to the budget bill that would affect public and occupational health. Among the riders that would prevent environmental protections from being advanced is one that could keep scientists who receive federal research grants from serving on Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) science advisory boards. This could, for example, exclude scientists whose research is funded by the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health. Another budget provision could add additional delays to regulation of harmful chemicals by requiring EPA to replicate science studies submitted as part of chemical assessments.
Both of these riders essentially replicate bills introduced last year by House Republicans that the OMB recommended the president veto. While on the surface both sound reasonable, close reading shows they could easily result in achieving the opposite of what they claim to. Versions of both appear to remain in the budget bill that will go to the full House for a vote.
“The SAB rider,” explains UCS’s Rosenberg, “tips the scale even further in the direction of industry by twisting the concept of conflict of interest on its head. It says that academics who get money from government grants have a conflict but industry-supported scientists don’t.”
And as the Natural Resources Defense Council senior attorney Daniel Rosenberg explains further via email, “The rider attempts to hold EPA hostage by halting all Science Advisory Board activities until EPA changes its policies” — and has these changes vetted by a Government Accountability Office report. Both riders could affect all future chemical regulation and how federal occupational protection standards are set.
So what’s likely to happen?
“We’re all hoping for a ‘clean’ budget bill,” said Wright earlier this week. The bill that emerged Tuesday night is not exactly ‘clean,’ and how these riders play out, assuming the bill passes in the form currently available, remains to be seen. According to The Hill, the House is expected to pass an additional stop-gap spending measure today, to keep the government funded through December 22nd with a vote on the $1.1 trillion budget bill anticipated on Friday of this week.
But when it comes to silica, “Millions of workers will breathe easier,” says Martinez, “if this important new rule goes into effect as planned this coming February.”