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Silica Dust Regs Being Held Up by Obama Admin, Pro-Business Lobbies While Workers Suffer

A frequently overlooked complaint about President Obama administration is a lack of progress in protecting workers from the dangerous effects of silica dust. The dangers are well-known and dealt with on a daily basis but the administration has nonetheless been inactive on the subject.

On February 14th, 2011, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) submitted a proposed rule to reduce exposure to life-threatening silica dust to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget. The review, which was supposed to take 90 days, is still stuck in a regulatory black hole.

Worker safety advocates claim that instead of opening the issue up for public debate the Obama administration is opting to meet behind closed doors with industry stakeholders who want to pump the brakes on the new rule.

In response to the delay, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka has taken to the (web)pages of The Huffington Post to give his opinion. In an op-ed he writes,

For decades, working people and their unions have fought to make jobs safer. And we’ve made great progress, winning job safety standards that have saved hundreds of thousands of lives. But at every step toward progress, we faced the same obstacles that are blocking stronger silica dust limits: well-funded knee-jerk opposition by business trade groups and industry associations.

Peg Seminario, director of safety and health for the AFL-CIO, recently told NPR about the danger in delaying such decisions:

“Every year this rule is delayed, another 60 workers will die,” says Seminario. “That’s deaths. That’s not to even look at the numbers of workers who will become sick. We still have thousands of new cases of silicosis every year in this country.”

On cue, those holding up the decision argue that new standards would be a “burden on business.” Amanda Wood, director of labor and employment policy at the National Association of Manufacturers, told NPR,

“The rule would cost manufacturers and the industry as a whole billions of dollars a year that is just not sustainable for manufacturing when employers are looking to hire and create new opportunities for job creation,”

Others argue that OSHA does not hold employers to the current standards well enough making new standards a secondary solution to enforcement of current standards. One of the objectors is Brian Turmail, spokesperson for the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), a pro-business lobby. He told NPR,

“They’re finding that firms aren’t complying with the current limit about a third of a time,” says Turmail. “We’re going to get a lot more improvement in workplace safety if we just can work together to make it so that everyone can comply with the current standard than we’re ever going to get out of changing the standard to a new and even more unattainable level.

“I think we all want to achieve the same thing, which is a safer workplace. Our concern is that OSHA’s approach isn’t going to be effective.”

In response David Michaels, director of OSHA, says,

“Even if 100 percent of employers kept exposures at the current standard, silica-exposed workers would still be at increased risk for lung cancer, silicosis and chronic obstructive lung disease,” says Michaels.

Exposures have dropped compared with the “terrible” exposures decades ago, says Michaels, “but still there are plenty of people exposed to dangerous levels, and we can’t ignore that.”

And he says the changes his agency wants will not result in lost jobs. “There will be people who will say that our proposal will hurt employment in the United States, and that’s simply not true,” says Michaels. “We’ve looked at the industry analyses, and they’re wrong.”

The fact remains that the bottom-line-centric are doing little if anything to tackle the dangers of Silica dust. The Obama Administration, meanwhile, has waited two years to address new standards proposed by the body charged with overseeing worker safety, OSHA. We all know that lobbyists have a job to do and that industries have the right to look out for their own interests. Unfortunately, in this case their “success” means more workers lying on the construction site floor.


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