Proposed Silica Rule Will Protect Thousands of State’s Most Vulnerable Workers

August 26, 2013

With a construction boom taking place in Boston, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) release of a long-delayed rule that would shield workers from excessive exposure to silica dust on the job is a long overdue step forward to protect construction workers and many other workers who are exposed to the material on a regular basis, the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety & Health (MassCOSH) said today.

The inhalation of fine silica dust can lead to severe lung diseases characterized by shortness of breath, cough, fever, and cyanosis (bluish skin). Workers can be exposed to dangerous levels of silica dust through cutting, drilling, grinding, or otherwise disturbing material that might contain silica, such as in construction and mining work.

“Too many workers have suffered life-threatening illnesses, waiting for a silica standard to be issued,” said Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, MassCOSH Executive Director. “With new construction taking place, such as the resumed work at the old Filene's Department Store site, the timing of this rule is a welcome and critical step forward toward in finally protecting hundreds of thousands of from entirely preventable silica-related disease.”

The rule is divided into two standards – one for general industry and maritime, and one for construction. The rule lowers the legal limit of silica dust that workers are permitted to breathe to 50 micrograms of respirable silica per cubic meter of air, and for construction workers, suggests specific control methods, such as wet cutting and ventilation in certain situations.

OSHA estimates that about 2.2 million workers in the U.S. are exposed to silica dust nearly 1.85 million of whom are in the construction industry. In addition to causing the lung disease silicosis, studies also have found a strong association between silica exposure and lung cancer, kidney disease and autoimmune system disorders.

OSHA estimates that the proposed rule will save nearly 700 lives and prevent 1,600 new cases of silicosis per year, once the full effects of the rule are realized.

OSHA has been trying to strengthen rules limiting workers' exposure to silica since the 1980s, but has been stymied by industry opposition. Its current proposal had been mired in bureaucratic limbo since 2000. Most recently, it was stuck at the U.S. Office of Management and Budget’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) for more than two and a half years, despite the agency’s deadline to review the rule within 90 days.

The proposed rule also includes provisions for measuring how much silica workers are exposed to, limiting workers’ access to areas where silica exposures are high, using effective methods for reducing exposures, providing medical exams to workers with high silica exposures, and training for workers about silica-related hazards and how to limit exposure.

“Exposure to dust containing silica is one of the oldest known causes of work-related lung disease and the recognition of respiratory problems from breathing in dust even dates back to ancient Greeks and Romans,” said MassCOSH Membership and Communications Coordinator Jeff Newton. “In the U.S. efforts to protect workers began in the early 1900s and in 1938, Francis Perkins, then U.S. Secretary of Labor in the Roosevelt administration, convened a National Conference to Stop Silicosis. We are glad to see that protections are following science that found current silica exposure standards to be subpar and dangerous,” said Newton.

For more information on OSHA’s proposed silica rule, visit: