New silica OSHA rules could save hundreds of lives each year

Federal regulators have updated exposure limits for silica, a known carcinogen, for the first time since 1971.

For the first time since 1971, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has updated its rules concerning silica exposure in the workplace, according to the New York Times. Silica, a dust that workers in the construction and fracking industries are especially exposed to, has been known to cause cancer and other work-related illnesses for decades. The new rules, which had first been proposed in the 1970s, will save 600 lives and prevent a further 900 new silicosis cases each year, based on federal estimates. While the rules are now in effect, the construction and other industries have been given various deadlines for when they need to be in compliance.

A dangerous dust

Silica is a dust composed of sand and stone that is found in common building and industrial materials, such as concrete, building blocks, mortar and brick. When those materials are cut, sandblasted, or involved in certain procedures such as fracking then large amounts of silica are sent into the air. When inhaled by workers, silica particles can become embedded in the lung, which in turn can lead to lung cancer, silicosis, and kidney disease.

Prior to the recent rule change, exposure to silica had been limited to 250 micrograms per cubic square meter in the construction industry and 100 micrograms in other industries. The recent rule change lowers that limit to 50 micrograms per cubic square meter in all industries. The change will affect about 2.5 million workers across the United States, the vast majority of whom work in construction, although workers in the growing fracking industry will also be greatly impacted by the change. According to Reuters, while the new rules are now in effect, the construction industry will be given until June 2017 to be in compliance, while other industries will need to comply by June 2018

Hundreds of lives saved

The 50 microgram limit had, in fact, first been proposed in the 1970s by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. However, while the science in the decades since then continued to prove just how dangerous silica exposure is, limits to such exposure, which had been set in 1971, remained unchanged. When the new rules are fully enforced and complied with, federal officials estimate that 600 lives will be saved annually.

However, despite the extreme dangers of silica exposure, industry groups and lobbyists have vowed to fight the changes, arguing that they will cost businesses billions in extra expenses. However, the Labor Department contends that those concerns are overblown and it points out that safety equipment designed to control and capture silica dust is relatively inexpensive.

Workers' compensation

As the above article shows, the dangers faced by workers, particularly in the construction industry, are serious. For anybody who has been injured or fallen ill as a result of their employment, making a claim for workers' compensation could help ease the financial burden of their ordeal. A workers' compensation attorney can help injured and sick workers, including by assisting them with the claims process so that they increase their chances of being fully compensated.