For the second time this year, the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has postponed implementation of worker safety standards that would protect the lives of hundreds of workers.
OSHA on April 6 announced that it was delaying implementation of new safety standards limiting worker exposure to crystalline silica, a fine dust that can cause silicosis, a debilitating and sometimes fatal lung disease, lung cancer, and kidney disease.
Silica dust, which is created during the use of power tools such as saws, grinders, drill, and jackhammers, is common at construction sites, foundries, and fracking wells.
The new exposure limits, which would only affect the construction industry, were set to go into effect in June, but implementation was postponed until September.
In March, lobbyist from several construction industry trade groups urged OSHA to postpone implementation for one year.
In February, OSHA postponed new safety standards for working with beryllium from March until May.
Beryllium is a lightweight metal used in the manufacture of electronic devices, aircrafts, and missiles.
When beryllium is machined, dust from the machining can be inhaled and cause a chronic lung disease.
OSHA’s decision to delay implementation of the silica safety standards was criticized by the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (NCOSH), a coalition of local and state occupational safety groups.
“The federal safety standard limiting worker exposure to silica dust has been decades in the making,” said Jessica Martinez, co-executive director of NCOSH. “It is backed by solid scientific evidence and the experience of workers who have suffered cancer, silicosis and other life-threatening diseases. There is no reason for delaying this rule, which will save more 600 lives each year.”
The dangers of silica have been known since the 1930s. The government first enacted silica safety standards in 1971, but those standards proved to be inadequate.
After extensive research, OSHA proposed new silica safety standards in 2011. After years of further research and public input, OSHA the new safety standards were finalized in May 2016.
There are actually two safety standards: one for the construction industry, the other for general industry and maritime services.
The safety standards for the construction industry were to be implemented on June 23, 2017. The other standards were to be implemented a year later.
At the time that the safety standards were published, Tomas Perez, the then secretary of the US Labor Department said that the new standards would save the lives of 600 workers a year and prevent 900 new cases of silicosis.
Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, co-executive director of NCOSH said that the delay in implementing the new safety standards imposes an unwarranted risk to the health and safety of construction workers.
“With construction season underway, three months of delay means that millions of workers will be exposed to hazardous silica dust that will make them sick and take their lives,” said Goldstein-Gelb.
According to OSHA, 2 million construction workers at more than 600,000 construction work sites are exposed to silica dusts.
Of those exposed, 840,000 are exposed to silica levels higher than those of the new safety standards.
Goldstein-Gelb said that steps that companies can take to comply with the new safety standards would be minimal.
“Tools to wet down silica dust and vacuum it up are practical, affordable, and readily available,” said Goldstein-Gelb. “The new standard was announced more than a year ago and employers are aware of their responsibilities to limit worker exposure. To protect workers, the time to act is now.”