November 17, 2014

Obama’s Path to Progress: Protecting Workers from Deadly Silica Dust

In 1997, when OSHA first placed the silica standard on its to-do list, Titanic and Good Will Hunting were hits at the box office and the Hanson Brothers’ “MMMBop” was topping the charts. Pop culture has come a long way since then. OSHA, however, has only made modest progress on the silica rule. It took until 2013—sixteen years—for OSHA to get from saying “we plan to create a new standard” to actually proposing the text. Now the agency is reviewing the mountain of public input submitted during the 11-month open comment period. Two million workers in the U.S. are exposed to the carcinogenic dust and public health experts estimate that every year more than 7,000 workers develop silicosis, and more than 200 die as a result. 

So what’s the holdup? The question defies simple answers. OSHA jumps through significant analytical hoops before publishing a new standard, but many experts believe that OSHA does a more detailed analysis than is truly necessary under the relevant administrative laws. Consequently, OSHA is also hamstrung by limited rulemaking resources. Congress gave OSHA a lofty goal—to ensure that every worker in the U.S. has safe and healthful employment—but then provides the agency with a budget of barely $600 million. With a responsibility to ensure safety at more than 8 million workplaces, OSHA must put a lot of that money into enforcing existing standards. Not much is left for writing new rules. The White House has not been particularly helpful in moving the silica rule along, either. OSHA sent a draft of the proposed rule to the White House for prepublication review in February 2011. It sat there for more than two and a half years before OSHA was finally able to shake it loose and present it to the public last year. 

Industry opposition is also a major factor in the rule’s slow progress. Naturally, the construction industry, with its heavy reliance on concrete, brick, and other silica-containing building materials, is critical of the likely changes to the rule. But other powerful players are also coming out in opposition. Fracking operations, for instance, use massive amounts of sand to prop open fracked wells and some fracking industry workers are exposed to dangerous levels of silica when moving this sand to and around drilling sites. The energy industry is anxious about its potential new obligations to those employees.

As we noted in our recent Issue Alert, the silica rule gives President Obama an opportunity to show workers what he can do to make their lives better. The voters who showed up to the polls two weeks ago certainly made their disaffection with the president known, but across the country, voters who supported new Republican legislators were voting for Republicans who ran campaigns that touted the importance of equal pay and the need to build an economic recovery on full, not part-time, jobs. Voters in Illinois, Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota passed ballot initiatives to increase state minimum wages. Good jobs matter to voters and no job is good if it’s not safe. President Obama can burnish his legacy and show 2 million workers and their families that he means to do well by them if he makes the silica rule a priority for his administration.

Matt Shudtz, Executive Director, Center for Progressive Reform. Bio.

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