Occupational illnesses Silica Construction Manufacturing Workplace exposures Respiratory conditions Office of Management and Budget Metalwork

Silica standoff

As OMB’s review of the proposed rule continues, one industry group says a new standard is not needed

More than 16 years after OSHA announced a need for a comprehensive standard on crystalline silica dust, at least one organization is asserting that such a rulemaking is not necessary.

In 1996, OSHA suggested its current permissible exposure limit for silica may be too high, and worker protection was lacking without a comprehensive standard that included engineering controls, respiratory protection, and medical screening and surveillance. A standard could help reduce silica-related disease, OSHA noted at the time.

A 2011 report from Public Citizen, a Washington-based advocacy group, claims the lack of a new silica standard has, since 2003, led to more than 150 fatal lung cancer cases, more than 300 fatal cases of silicosis and more than 19,000 cases of nonfatal silicosis.

“More than 2 million workers in the United States are exposed to silica dust,” the report states. “Most at risk are construction, foundry and metal workers. OSHA acknowledges that its current silica dust standard is obsolete.”

But in a document obtained from a meeting between the American Foundry Society and White House officials, AFS paints a different picture.

On March 12, the industry group met with officials from the Office of Management and Budget. OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, at press time, had been reviewing OSHA’s proposed silica rulemaking for more than two years. Although OSHA’s proposal for a new silica standard has not been publicly released, AFS criticizes what it believes might be included in a new OSHA standard.

In the document submitted to OMB, the group said OSHA’s current standard on crystalline silica has “significantly improved” occupational health and there is “no need” for the agency to reduce the silica PEL.

The AFS document warns that a “poorly designed standard will add large unnecessary costs and cause facility closures, job losses and reduced competitiveness of U.S. businesses, especially the foundry industry.”

Complying with a PEL lowered from the current 100 micrograms per cubic meter of air to a projected 50 µg/m3 would cost the foundry industry $1.5 billion a year in engineering controls, AFS said – 10 times greater than OSHA’s estimate.

AFS said “ancillary” requirements – such as health screening, housekeeping, and clothing and hygiene facilities – could likewise increase the costs. The cost to the metal casting industry to comply with these requirements under a PEL and action level of 50 µg/m3 (which AFS said was OSHA’s preference during a small-business review panel in 2003) would be nearly $400 million.

As an alternative to promulgating a new standard, AFS suggests using respirators for PEL compliance. The group also said continued enforcement of the current PEL would further improve worker health.

“We don’t agree with that,” said Peg Seminario, director of occupational safety and health for the AFL-CIO. “We think there is a need for a lower PEL.”

The current silica standard has a PEL that was adopted in 1971, with no control measures or requirements to conduct any kind of monitoring – something Seminario called “absurd.”

“There are no requirements to conduct exposure monitoring or medical exams, no specific control measures,” she said of the current standard.

Seminario declined to discuss more specific allegations in the AFS document, noting that such discussion could amount to “shooting in the dark” because OSHA’s proposal has not been released publicly.

Instead, she criticized the lengthy process of the silica rulemaking. The meeting with AFS was the 10th such meeting OMB has had with stakeholders and industry groups since OIRA began reviewing OSHA’s proposed rule on Feb. 14, 2011. An OIRA review is not meant to last more than 90 days.

“Release the proposal so we can have an opportunity, in public, where everybody can come forward and make their views and present the evidence and build a record,” Seminario said. “Based on that, OSHA can determine what a final standard should look like.”

(For more on OSHA’s rulemaking process and what some stakeholders think about it, read Road to rulemaking.)

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