U.S. Labor Department enacts new rule to protect workers from silica dust

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Bricklayers have been working toward ruling for several years

By MARY ANN HOLLEY

Correspondent

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration has issued its final ruling to improve protections for workers exposed to respirable silica dust. The construction industry must enact the new rule by June 23.

The rule, “Occupational Exposure to Respirable Crystalline Silica” will help about 2.3 million workers who are exposed to the toxic dust that can be breathed in while working with materials that contain silica. OSHA estimates the ruling will benefit two million construction workers who drill, cut, crush or grind silica-containing materials such as concrete and stone and 300,000 workers in general industry operations such as brick manufacturing, foundries and hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking.

“The Bricklayers International Union has been working toward this ruling for several years. It’s a really big deal to see it enacted,” Bricklayers Local 1 Director Don Brown said. “Testifying with OSHA began in 2014, and we couldn’t be more relieved to see this silica protection finally getting updated for the first time since 1971.”

Overall, Brown said, the Bricklayers International Union has been speaking out for four decades, demanding that OSHA do something about the dangers silica presents. The union has also been working with community and industry partners, scientists and lawmakers to ensure adoption of the final rule.

THANKS TO UNION MEMBERS

“Many thanks to all our members who helped put a human face on the loss and illness associated with this occupational peril,” Bricklayers International Union President James Boland said.

“Together, our union and the Labor Movement have and will continue to improve safety and health protections for our workers. Together, we can make workers’ lives better. And together, we will continue the fight to protect this final standard.”

To raise public awareness of the deadly consequences of silica exposure and support the final adoption of OSHA’s proposed silica rule, the Bricklayers Union has also launched a “Stop Silica from Killing Again” campaign, and its members also testified at OSHA hearings, sharing their personal stories on dangers of silica exposure, among many other efforts.

“Our District and the entire International Union is fighting to ensure that working people are protected from this avoidable danger,” Brown said. “Workers are still getting sick and dying from silicosis and there is no denying it anymore. Workers in the construction trades deserve these new standards and the protection they bring.”

WHAT IS SILICA?

Silica, often referred to as quartz, is a very common mineral found in many materials common on construction sites, including soil, sand, concrete, masonry, rock, granite, and landscaping materials.

Brown said the dust created by cutting, grinding, drilling or otherwise disturbing these materials can contain crystalline silica particles. These dust particles are very small and invisible to the naked eye. This respirable silica dust causes lung disease and lung cancer. It only takes a very small amount of airborne silica dust to create a health hazard.

OSHA estimates that after the final rule on Occupational Exposure to Respirable Crystalline Silica becomes fully effective June 23, it will save more than 600 lives annually and prevent more than 900 new cases of silicosis – an incurable and progressive disease – each year. OSHA also estimates the final rule will provide net benefits of about $7.7 billion per year.

“The previous exposure limits were outdated and did not adequately protect workers,” Brown said. “Limiting exposure to silica dust is essential. Every year, many exposed workers not only lose their ability to work, but also to breathe. This OSHA action brings worker protections into the 21st century in ways that are feasible and economical for employers to implement.”

Most employers can limit harmful dust exposure by using equipment that is widely available – generally using water or a vacuum system to keep dust from getting into the air or a ventilation system to capture dust where it is created.

“More than 80 years ago, Labor Secretary Frances Perkins identified silica dust as a deadly hazard and called on employers to fully protect workers,” said former U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez. “This rule will save lives. It will enable workers to earn a living without sacrificing their health. It builds upon decades of research and a lengthy stakeholder engagement process – including the consideration of thousands of public comments – to finally give workers the kind of protection they deserve and that Frances Perkins had hoped for them.”

THE NEW RULE

The final rule will improve worker protection by:

  • Reducing the permissible exposure limit for crystalline silica to 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air, averaged over an eight-hour shift.
  • Requiring employers to use engineering controls (such as water or ventilation) and work practices to limit worker exposure; provide respiratory protection when controls are not able to limit exposures to the permissible level; limit access to high exposure areas; train workers; and provide medical exams to highly exposed workers.
  • Providing greater certainty and ease of compliance to construction employers – including many small employers – by including a table of specified controls they can follow to be in compliance, without having to monitor exposures.
  • Staggering compliance dates to ensure employers have sufficient time to meet the requirements, e.g., extra time for the hydraulic fracturing (fracking) industry to install new engineering controls and for all general industry employers to offer medical surveillance to employees exposed between the PEL and 50 micrograms per cubic meter and the action level of 25 micrograms per cubic meter.

The final rule is written as two standards, one for construction and one for general industry and maritime. Employers covered by the construction standard have until June 23 to comply with most requirements. Employers covered by the general industry and maritime standard have an additional year, until June 23, 2018 to comply with most requirements; additional time is provided to offer medical exams to some workers and for hydraulic fracturing employers to install dust controls to meet the new exposure limit.

The International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers (BAC) represents bricklayers, restoration specialists, pointers/cleaners/caulkers, stonemasons, marble masons, cement masons, plasterers, tilesetters, terrazzo mechanics, and tile, marble and terrazzo finishers.

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