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Construction Industry Challenging OSHA's New Silica Rule

April 13, 2016
 / Safety / , / osha / , / agc / 

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The construction industry has taken a stand against a one of the most long-awaited and controversial Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules to be released in years.

OSHA’s final Occupational Exposure to Respirable Crystalline Silica rule, which was released March 25, 2016, limits exposure to no more than 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air during the course of an eight-hour workday. The previous acceptable standard was 100 micrograms, although construction workers can often be exposed to as much as 250 micrograms per day.

But the Associated General Contractors of America, which claims these numbers are impossible to meet, filed a challenge to OSHA’s rule in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans. Working closely with its Louisiana chapter, AGC joined a number of local industry partners who are also concerned about the impact the rule could have on the construction industry.

“Our members are deeply committed to taking every possible step to reducing silica exposure on your worksites,” AGC Chief Executive Officer Steven E. Sandherr said in a press release. “However, we have significant concerns about whether this rule is technically feasible, given that the agency’s final permissible exposure limit is beyond the capacity of existing dust filtration and removal technology.”

OSHA did make a number of changes before releasing the final rule, including dropping requirements for contractors to designate regulated areas where dust is being generated – blocking access to whole areas of construction sites – but Sandherr said the changes are still not enough.

Sandherr and the AGC instead urged federal officials to force compliance by the roughly 25 percent of firms he says are still not following the current rules.

“Instead of crafting new and innovative ways to get more firms to comply with the current silica standard, which we know would save even more workers each year, administration officials have opted to set a new standard that is well beyond the capabilities of all current air filtration and dust removal technologies,” the AGC said in an email statement. “Wishing firms would meet this new but unattainable standard will undoubtedly deliver many positive headlines for the administration, but it will do regrettably little to improve workplace safety.”

Read AGC's tips to improve construction worker safety here.

Labor groups joined with OSHA to applaud the new protections against silica, which has been linked to lung cancer, kidney disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Silica can be found in materials like concrete, brick, and stone, and breaking up those materials sends the offending sand-like dust into the air. About 2.3 million people in the U.S. are exposed to fine grain silica on the job each year, according NPR.org, and the dust is usually controlled using vacuums, wetting down surfaces or by wearing respirators.

Per the new rule, workers would also be trained to protect themselves from exposure to silica and would face routine medical exams.

“No one should have to shorten his or her life to make a living,” Labor Secretary Tom Perez said after the rule was released. “Everyone who leaves for work in the morning should come home safe and sound.”

But the construction industry is concerned about the high cost of enforcing the rule. According to The Hill, The National Federation of Independent Business estimates the rule will cost the industry approximately $7.2 billion per year, which could lead to 27,000 fewer jobs over the next decade.

President Barack Obama has promised to update the current silica protections, put in place in the 1970s, since 2011, but it was delayed by red tape, a lengthy comment period, and several public hearings.

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