On Safety

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A silica story

May 13, 2014

Sean Barrett was a terrazzo worker for 20 years before silica dust took the wind out of his lungs and sidelined him.

At 41 years old, Barrett was found slouched over a machine. He was taken to a hospital, where he discovered he had occupational asthma caused by silica dust exposure. With his breathing capacity nearly half of what it should have been and the chance of his new asthma diagnosis developing into something more serious, Barrett’s doctor warned him to consider changing careers.

An International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers member who expresses love and pride for his profession, Barrett hasn’t worked since his diagnosis. When on the job, he didn’t get to choose the equipment – the employer gave it to Barrett and told him to get the job done, regardless of the equipment’s condition.

“Workers are still dying, workers are still getting sick, workers are still forced to choose between a life and a paycheck,” he said.

Barrett shared his story during a May 8 teleconference announcing the release of the AFL-CIO’s annual “Death on the Job” report. He and other worker advocates are pushing for OSHA to issue a final rule that would update the agency’s Silica Standard. With stronger permissible exposure limits and other new requirements, a finalized rule could prevent as many as 700 deaths and 1,600 cases of silica-related diseases a year, according to OSHA.

The rulemaking process for silica began 17 years ago. In that time, an estimated 12,000 workers have died because the new standard has not been in place, Peg Seminario, AFL-CIO’s health and safety director, said at the teleconference.

“It’s an incredibly important standard, but it needs to be finalized,” she said. “Silica dust is a killer.”

Due to the long regulatory process and opposition to the rule from industry representatives, a final rule on silica may still be years away. For some of the millions of workers exposed to silica on a daily basis, that may be too long to wait.

The opinions expressed in "On Safety" do not necessarily reflect those of the National Safety Council or affiliated local Chapters.

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