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Battle Lines Drawn over Silica Rule

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

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A showdown is quickly shaping up over a new federal proposal to limit worker exposure to crystalline silica, pitting a new group of construction employers against organized labor and safety advocates.

Just days after the Occupational Safety and Health Administration released its long-delayed Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for Occupational Exposure to Respirable Crystalline Silica, a new group of employers from the construction industry emerged to fight the rule. Labor and other advocates are being equally vocal in their support for the proposal, which has been submitted for publication in the Federal Register.

The 11 building and contracting associations that have formed the Construction Industry Safety Coalition say their goal is "to encourage OSHA to develop better choices for compliance with the construction-specific silica rule: alternatives that also address costs, consistency with existing federal regulations, and do not overly burden small businesses."

NJ Department of Health via OSHA

More than 640,000 American workers are exposed to excessive levels of respirable crystalline silica, according to OSHA. The current permissible limits are 40 years old.

Meanwhile, labor unions are calling for swift action to finalize what they call a "long overdue" rule.

New Rules

The proposed rules—one for general industry and maritime employment, and one for construction—would update 40-year-old Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs) on silica. The proposal also details methods for controlling worker exposure, conducting medical surveillance, training workers about silica-related hazards, and recordkeeping.

The rule will be felt throughout the coatings, construction and abrasive blasting industries. Indeed, the death of a painter and blaster from silicosis figures prominently in a new OSHA video, "Deadly Dust," produced to support the silica proposal.

Workers are exposed to airborne respirable silica dust particles through cutting, sawing, drilling and crushing of concrete, brick, block and other stone products and in operations using sand products, such as in glass manufacturing, foundries and abrasive blasting.

Bill Ellis
"Deadly Dust"

A new OSHA video about silica features the story of Bill Ellis, a painter and blaster who died of silicosis from occupational exposure to the mineral.

More than two million American workers are currently exposed to respirable crystalline silica, according to OSHA. More than 640,000 are believed to be exposed at levels that exceed the current PELs, the agency says.

Employer Opposition

The Construction Industry Safety Coalition represents thousands of employers in home building, road repair, heavy industrial production, specialty trades and materials supply.

The American Coatings Association, which represents manufacturers, was not part of the coalition as of last week and had not released a position on the silica proposal.

The coalition says the proposed rules will cost the construction industry $1 billion a year and is calling for a "feasible and cost-effective" alternative.

“We need practical, science-based solutions that protect workers in all facets of construction,” said Rick Judson, chairman of the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), an association member of the coalition.

Rick Judson E. Colette Nelson
NAHB (left); Twitter

NAHB chairman Rick Judson says the current silica proposal is impractical. The ASA's E. Colette Nelson says the plan will affect tens of thousands of specialty trade contractors.

“Unfortunately, OSHA’s initial announcement about this proposed rule indicates we aren’t there yet,” Judson said in an announcement.

Subcontractors Speak Out

The American Subcontractors Association, another coalition member, has also assailed the proposal as "confusing and burdensome."

“OSHA’s proposed rule runs 577 pages and details the steps that tens of thousands of specialty trade contractors will have to follow in order to be in compliance,” ASA Chief Advocacy Officer E. Colette Nelson said in a statement.

ASA has developed a Special Report on the OSHA Proposed Rule on Crystalline Silica for its members.

In addition to NAHB and ASA, the coalition is composed of:

  • Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC);
  • Associated General Contractors of America (AGC);
  • Association of the Wall and Ceiling Industry (AWCI);
  • American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA);
  • International Council of Employers of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers (ICE);
  • Mason Contractors Association of America (MCAA);
  • Mechanical Contractors Association of America (MCA);
  • National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA); and
  • National Roofing Contractors Association (NRCA).

Asphalt Industry is Ready

One group that has long prepared for the silica proposal is the National Asphalt Pavement Association (NAPA), which has nearly 1,200 member companies. In a statement issued last week, the association said the asphalt industry was "positioned to meet the new standard."


The National Asphalt Pavement Association says it has been working for a decade to prepare for the rule and has devised simple equipment retrofits to meet the new limits.

The group notes that silica is a "known carcinogen" and says it has been partnering for a decade with milling machine manufacturers, labor, academia and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to reduce silica exposure.

The asphalt group says its Silica/Milling Machine Partnership has identified "simple retrofits for existing milling machines that effectively reduce potential silica exposure below OSHA’s new proposed PEL."

NAPA says it will offer suggestions during the public comment process on the proposal "to help better calibrate the rule to the industry's exposure potential."

"The Partnership is committed to doing the best work possible to ensure that workers are safe and that any silica exposure is reduced to the absolutely lowest level possible," said partnership chairman Tony Bodway, of Wisconsin-based Payne & Dolan Inc.

Labor: Fast Action Needed

Labor unions, meanwhile, call the proposed rule long overdue and are ready to fight for it.

The AFL-CIO, representing 57 unions and 12 million members, says a final silica rule "should be issued as fast as humanly possible, to protect the health and lives of American workers."

The union says 7,000 American workers develop silicosis each year and 200 die from the disease.

Richard Trumka Sean McGarvey
BCTD (left); AFL-CIO

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka (left) says his unions "will do everything we can" to move the rule forward. The Building and Construction Trades Department, led by president Sean McGarvey (right), sounded equally resolute.

"Workers exposed to silica dust will only be protected when a final rule is issued," AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in a statement.

He added: "Some industry groups are certain to attack the rule and try to stop it in its tracks. The AFL-CIO will do everything we can to see that this does not happen."

The two-million-member Building and Construction Trades Department, an alliance of 13 national and international unions, also voiced strong support.

statement by BCT called the release of the proposed rule "welcome news to the millions of workers at risk of exposure to dangerous levels of silica dust, those who already suffer from illnesses due to past exposures, and the families who have lost loved ones to silica-related illnesses."


Tagged categories: Abrasive blasting; American Subcontractors Association (ASA); Asphalt; Certifications and standards; Construction; Environmental Control; Fatalities; Health & Safety; Health and safety; Labor; National Association of Home Builders (NAHB); OSHA; Painting Contractors; Respirators; Roads/Highways; Silica; Workers

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (9/3/2013, 9:51 AM)

We definitely need tighter rules on airborne silica exposure. However, I have to agree that a 577 page rule with special instructions for all sorts of niches sounds entirely too complicated. Make one broad, easy-to-follow rule for everyone, and enforce it.

Comment from M. Halliwell, (9/4/2013, 10:37 AM)

It's the old saying come back again...."you can please some of the people some of the time...." You know that if the rule was as simple as "Thou shalt not expose your workers to airborne silica above X ppp (TWA) or Y ppm (STEL)" that some of the same groups complaining about / fighting this (most certainly agreed) big rule book would be complaining "but my industry is special and needs a special guideline."

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (9/6/2013, 9:05 AM)

Absolutely - many of those groups have decided to fight it in advance, and only then look for specifics to complain about. Regulation overall is much too complicated and carves out way too many "special" niches. If a certain level of silica is unsafe for a worker, it doesn't matter whether he is working on a bridge or in a shipyard or in a mine - that level is unsafe.

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