WASHINGTON -- After a long delay at the White House and heavy pressure from public health groups, the Labor Department proposed a new regulation on Friday that would tighten standards on silica dust on U.S. work sites, saving thousands of lives and curbing lung disease, according to occupational health experts.
Known as the silica rule, the regulation would cut the allowable amount of respirable silica dust in U.S. workplaces by at least half. Silica, considered a carcinogen by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, has for years been known to lead to debilitating lung conditions, including lung cancer, in industries like coal mining and construction where workers breathe tiny particles of the dust.
As HuffPost previously reported, the White House sat on the safety proposal for more than two years amid pressure from industry groups, rankling worker advocates and labor unions who said the inaction was costing lives. After numerous closed-door meetings between stakeholders and administration officials, the release of the rule on Friday puts the proposal into the public record and opens up a period of public comment.
The announcement by the Labor Department on Friday doesn't guarantee that the rule will become law, and industry trade groups are expected to lobby hard to water down or scrap the rule. But safety advocates said the proposal marked a major step forward in a decades-long effort to protect vulnerable workers.
"This is one of the poster children of occupational health hazards," said Celeste Monforton, a work safety expert with George Washington University. "This has been something the public health community has known for thousands of years to be a problem. I'm glad to see that the White House finally came to their senses or recognized that the political climate was safe enough for them to allow [the Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration] to move forward with this."
Crystalline silica is commonly found in construction materials like sand and granite. Workers who breathe the dust, particularly in a line of work like sandblasting, can eventually suffer from the respiratory disease silicosis. According to the Labor Department, about 2.2 million U.S. workers are exposed to the dust, with 1.85 million of them in the construction industry.
Despite the mounting evidence of silica's dangers, businesses have told federal officials they're worried about the cost of stronger regulations. Groups that met with the White House over the rule included the National Association of Home Builders, the American Chemistry Council and the National Industrial Sand Association, as well as the AFL-CIO labor federation and non-profits dealing in workplace safety.
Dr. David Michaels, the Labor Department's assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, told HuffPost that the rule would provide a critical update to regulations that haven't been adequately tightened since they were established in the early 1970s.
"We haven't made significant progress since 1971," Michaels said. "Subsequently, we've learned a great deal. The most important development since the early 1970s has been numerous studies showing that silica exposure increases the risk of lung cancer."
Current regulations allow for 100 micrograms of silica per cubic meter in most industries, and 250 in construction. The new rule would make the limit 50 micrograms per cubic meter across all industries. The rule would also provide medical exams and training to workers who are exposed to the dust. OSHA estimates that the rule would save 700 lives and head off 1,600 new silicosis cases each year.
Michaels said the rule allows for companies to take certain formal precautions on their worksites in order to be in compliance, rather than take on the cost of having the site measured for silica dust. He said that provision would help keep the rule's cost down for small construction businesses. According to OSHA, the average cost of the rule for the typical U.S. workplace will be $1,242 per year, and a more modest $550 for small workplaces of less than 20 employees.
In a statement on Friday, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka praised the release of the proposal but warned that it was far from being officially on the books.
"This rule is long overdue," Trumka said. "But this rule is only a proposal -- workers exposed to silica dust will only be protected when a final rule is issued. Some industry groups are certain to attack the rule and try to stop it in its tracks."