The federal government has announced yet another delay in its long-stalled rule on occupational exposure to crystalline silica, sparking objections and questions from health and safety experts.
The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), which reviews proposed federal regulations for the Office of Management and Budget, recently announced an “Extended Review” of the Occupational Exposure to Crystalline Silica (RIN 1218-AB70) rule.
OIRA received the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s rule Feb. 14, more than a year after peer review was completed, nearly two years after peer review began, and more than seven years after the Small Business Administration analyzed the proposal.
|More than 2 million U.S. workers are exposed to respirable crystalline silica in a variety of industries, the federal government says.|
Normally, OIRA’s reviews are completed within 90 days, David Connor, of OSHA’s Directorate of Standards and Guidance, said in an email Wednesday (Nov. 23). However, Connor said, “the review of the crystalline silica NPRM has been extended.”
He added: “OSHA is continuing to work with OIRA to address complex issues related to the costs, benefits, and economic impact analyses for the proposed rule, and we will continue to work to complete this required step in the rulemaking process as quickly as possible.
“No date has been established for completion of the review, and a new target date for publication of the NPRM has not been established at this time.”
The silica rule is one of 164 regulations now backed up at OIRA.
Frustrated, the 10,000-member American Industrial Hygiene Association has written to OMB director Jacob J. Lew and Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis, urging them to move the rule forward.
‘Fatalities and Disabling Illnesses’
More than two million workers are exposed to crystalline silica dust in general industry, construction and maritime industries, including workers involved in abrasive blasting, paint manufacturing, brick making, and glass and concrete manufacturing. Workers performing highway repair, masonry and concrete work are also exposed to silica dust.
Chronic silicosis is a uniquely occupational disease, and long-term exposure to high levels of respirable crystalline silica is often fatal.
In its own summary of the rule last spring, OIRA dramatically made the case for a new rule, noting that the current standard and Permissible Exposure Limits are based on an obsolete formula from 1968.
“The seriousness of the health hazards associated with silica exposure is demonstrated by the fatalities and disabling illnesses that continue to occur,” OIRA wrote.
“In 2005, the most recent year for which data is available, silicosis was identified on 161 death certificates as an underlying or contributing cause of death. It is likely that many more cases have occurred where silicosis went undetected.”
Exposure Formula Obsolete
“Exposure studies and OSHA enforcement data indicate that some workers continue to be exposed to levels of crystalline silica far in excess of current exposure limits,” and the federal government has been compensating some silicosis victims since the year 2000, according to OIRA.
Recommendations for reduced silica exposure and updated standards have been developed by, among others, the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH), the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, ASTM International, and the Building Construction Trades Department of the AFL-CIO, OIRA reports.
“Both industry and worker groups have recognized that a comprehensive standard for crystalline silica is needed to provide for exposure monitoring, medical surveillance, and worker training,” OIRA stated.
‘Rulemaking is Needed’
Workers “are exposed to a significant risk of silicosis and other serious disease and … rulemaking is needed to substantially reduce the risk,” according to OIRA.
“In addition, the proposed rule will recognize that the PELs for construction and maritime are outdated and need to be revised to reflect current sampling and analytical technologies.”
|Respirable dust from silica sand and other abrasive materials can put abrasive blasting workers at high risk of harmful exposures, NIOSH reports.|
Although the rule is generally expected to reduce the PEL and include provisions for exposure monitoring, medical surveillance and working training, the scope and particulars are still not known.
OSHA said months ago that it would issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for the new rule in April, but an OSHA spokesman said in mid-April that the process had been delayed. He gave no explanation but said the rule should be available in late May or early June.
There has been no action since then.
Political Pressure Questioned
So, asks AIHA, why the delay? And what’s in the rule, anyway? The association fears political pressure.
“The AIHA membership recognizes and supports the role of OIRA in reviewing proposed regulations,” AIHA president Elizabeth L. Pullen, CIH, wrote to OSHA, Solis and Lew on Nov. 10.
“However, our members have expressed concern that industry groups may be using this review process to delay rulemaking and lobby OMB to pre-determine key issues involved with OSHA’s proposed rule, such as exempting the construction industry from this regulation.
“Regardless of the technical merits of any comments made to OMB, we feel that extending review of the silica standard is an unacceptable attempt to ‘short circuit’ the existing process and may make it unusually vulnerable to political influence.”
Rule Release Urged
Pullen urged OMB to at least publish the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in the Federal Register, so that it can be publicly discussed, debated and scheduled for public hearings.
Currently, Pullen writes, “OMB’s review process does not maintain meaningful transparency for all affected parties.”
“We also encourage OMB to remind all stakeholders that the proposed rule is the BEGINNING of the process, not the END,” wrote Pullen.
“[W]e encourage OMB to release the rule, defer to OSHA’s scientific judgment as much as possible, and publicly reassure stakeholders that they will have plenty of opportunity for comment and input into the development of a final rule on silica.”