March 23, 2016

Public Citizen Applauds Expected Release of Final Silica Rule After Decades of Delay

Rule Could Save 700 Lives, Prevent 1,600 Cases of Silicosis a Year

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The U.S. Department of Labor will make great strides in reducing illnesses and deaths related to silica dust by releasing a long-awaited standard, Public Citizen said. The long-overdue silica rule, expected to be finalized and released this week, will update the standard that protects workers from exposure to crystalline silica dust.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) silica standard has not been updated since 1971, leaving approximately 2.2 million workers in construction, sandblasting, fracking and other industries vulnerable to dangerous levels of silica dust for decades. In addition to lung cancer, silica has contributed to 1,437 silicosis-related deaths between 2001 and 2010. The new standard could save nearly 700 lives and prevent approximately 1,600 new cases of silicosis per year, according to OSHA.

“While we are disappointed that the silica rule has taken so long to complete, we commend OSHA for its hard work in finalizing this rule while facing extensive industry opposition,” said Lisa Gilbert, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division. “This revised standard will be critical in protecting workers from silica dust, a dangerous carcinogen and health hazard.”

In December 1974, after the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommended that OSHA cut its silica exposure limit in half, OSHA published its first advanced notice of a proposed rulemaking. But a rule never materialized, even as the scientific community collected more evidence of silica’s harmful effects on workers. As early as 1986, experts began to acknowledge that silica is a dangerous carcinogen.

The current round of rulemaking began in 1997 under the Clinton administration – almost 20 years ago – when OSHA again put silica on its regulatory agenda. George W. Bush’s White House declared the proposed silica rule to be a priority in 2002, but the delays continued, and the Bush administration never finished the rule. Like its predecessors, the Obama administration put silica at the top of its agenda in 2009.

The proposed silica rule was submitted to the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in February 2011. But for two and a half years, the proposed rule stalled. Corporate lobbyists meeting with OMB officials consistently outnumbered the labor and public health advocates calling for higher standards.

In 2014, Public Citizen urged OSHA to adopt the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health’s recommended exposure limit of 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air for respirable crystalline silica. Despite public pressure to finish the rule quickly, OMB’s 90-day review period turned into a 921-day review. Following additional interagency back-and-forth, OSHA sent OMB the final version of the rule in December 2015. The final rule is expected to be released this week. Public Citizen looks forward to the opportunity to review the final rule in its entirety before weighing in on its contents.

“With the silica rule finalized, OSHA should continue its important work in cooperation with OMB so that other worker health and safety rules that are still pending can be completed before the end of the Obama administration,” said Emily Gardner, worker health and safety advocate for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division. “Workers become ill and even die while waiting for reform. While the silica rule has suffered an undue delay, we commend OSHA for finally releasing this life saving rule.”

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