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New Rules Would Improve Workplace Safety for Workers Exposed to Silica

Encouraged by labor leaders, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has proposed more strict workplace safety rules to limit exposure to crystalline silica. If enacted, rules will prevent nearly 700 deaths every year.

The very small particles in this form of silica can cause lung cancer, silicosis, and other illnesses. For years, labor leaders have argued that the current exposure limits were too lenient and should be strengthened.

However, business groups have argued that silicosis deaths were declining and that the proposal would be difficult to implement.

The assistant secretary of labor in charge of OSHA observed that the proposed rule could prevent around 1,600 cases of silicosis every year. The goal is to limit exposure to the substance among construction workers, who are the primary victims of silicosis.

Crystalline silica is created during work with stone, concrete, brick or mortar. It can be produced during sawing, grinding and drilling. Industries making glass or conducting sand blasting often produce significant amounts of silica. Workers who perform hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, are known to be exposed to silica levels that are 10 times more than permissible.

Affected employees eventually lose their ability to breathe.

Business interests oppose the new rule, which will cut exposure standards for general industry and maritime 40 percent. Permissible exposure levels for the construction industry would be cut by 80 percent. The director of safety and health for the AFL-CIO noted that there are over two million workers exposed to silica, a long-recognized workplace hazard.

In addition to establishing stricter standards, the new rules would require businesses to measure silica levels and offer medical testing that includes chest x-rays and lung function tests.

Source: New York Times, "New Rules Would Cut Silica Dust Exposure," Aug. 23, 2013.

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