The Occupational Safety and Health Administration proposed long-awaited rules Friday to limit crystalline silica a move it said would prevent nearly 700 deaths a year by reducing exposure to these very small particles that can cause lung cancer and other diseases.
OSHA faced heavy pressure from labor leaders, who argued that the current exposure limits, adopted four decades ago, were lax and should be strengthened to prevent silicosis, an irreversible respiratory disease that can be fatal. But business groups lobbied against the proposal, questioning whether it would be feasible to carry out and noting that silicosis deaths were declining.
"Exposure to silica can be deadly, and limiting that exposure is essential," said Dr. David Michaels, assistant labor secretary in charge of OSHA. He estimated that the proposed rule would prevent 1,600 new cases of silicosis each year.
Michaels said the rules issued after 2 1/2 years of delay would affect 534,000 businesses, 90 percent of them in construction.
He said it would cost the industry $640 million to comply with the new rules, averaging $1,242 a company but he estimated that the total benefits would exceed $4 billion.
Crystalline silica tiny particles at least 100 times smaller than sand is created during work that involves stone, concrete, brick or mortar.
It can occur during sawing, grinding and drilling and is common in glass manufacturing and sand blasting. One government study found that many workers in hydraulic fracturing known as fracking were exposed to 10 times the permissible level of silica.
Michaels said: "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."
He said the public would have 90 days to submit written comments before public hearings would be held.
"We're eager to have a discussion with all of our stakeholders to get their input to make sure we're getting this right," Michaels said in an interview.
Marc Freedman, executive director of labor law policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, questioned the need for the rules. For general industry and maritime, the proposed permissible exposure levels will be cut to 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air from 100 micrograms. The construction industry's exposure levels will be cut 80 percent, to 50 micrograms from 250 per cubic meter of air.
Freedman said many businesses thought rigorous enforcement of current standards would be sufficient. "I'm not saying employers don't want to spend the money on safety the question is, is this doable," he said.
Tighter restrictions, he said, would affect the fracking industry.
"This could have a big impact on fracking, when that industry has been doing a lot of good things for the economy," he said.
Peg Seminario, director of safety and health for the AFL-CIO, applauded OSHA's move.
"It's a very important rule there are over 2 million workers exposed to silica," she said. "It's long recognized as a hazard. The current standard was adopted more than 40 years ago, and it doesn't protect workers." She said the proposal would require businesses to measure periodically for silica and to offer medical testing every three years, including chest X-rays and lung function tests, for workers exposed to permissible limits 30 days or more a year.
Labor unions and other worker advocacy groups had criticized the Obama administration for the delays, saying the Office of Management and Budget known for insisting on thorough cost-benefit analyses sat on the proposal for more than two years.
Michaels said the main reason for the delay was that his agency needed to analyze the new rules for 130 industries. He predicted that industries would find cheaper ways than OSHA foresees to tighten exposure limits.