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March 24 — Hailing the release of the final silica rule on March 24, Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez at times was apologetic, recounting stories about thousands of workers who died from inhaling silica.
“It shouldn't have taken this long,” Perez said, addressing an audience of labor representatives and businesses that support the new rule. “Today public policy is catching up with science.”
The silica rule sets a permissible exposure limit (PEL) for airborne crystalline silica of 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air (50 μg/m3) for general industry, construction and maritime employers. The new PEL is half the old general industry PEL of 100 μg/m3, and 80 percent less than the old construction and maritime standard of 250 μg/m3.
Perez pointed out the 50 microgram PEL is the same level the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommended in 1974. The old PELs were adopted in 1971.
About 2.3 million workers are exposed to silica in workplaces, according to OSHA, and of those, about 940,000 are exposed to silica levels exceeding the new standard.
The new standard takes effect June 23. However, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is allowing industries up to five years to comply with the rule. The compliance deadline for construction is June 23, 2017, while the general industry and maritime deadline is June 23, 2018.
One exception is for oil and gas drilling fracking operations, whose compliance deadline is June 23, 2021.
OSHA administrator David Michaels said the different timetables were based on when OSHA believes employers would be reasonably expected to be in compliance. Fracking was given extra time to comply in order to enable employers to use emerging technologies.
Because of the long compliance lead times—often new OSHA rules call for implementation within two or three months—OSHA doesn't anticipate extending the deadlines, as it has done with portions of other rules, Michaels said.
Though the final rule is 1,772 double-spaced pages, Perez said compliance is often simple. Wetting down surfaces while they are being ground or cut and using vacuums to capture airborne silica will often bring a workplace into compliance, the secretary said.
Michaels and Perez said they expect some employer groups will complain loudly—what Perez, quoting President Franklin Roosevelt, called “calamity howlers.” And, the groups may try to stop or challenge the rule through federal court petitions for review and in Congress, he said.
Some large commercial construction companies are backing the rule, including Turner Construction Co., whose ongoing projects include the renovation of the U.S. Capitol dome, and Gilbane Building Co.
Chris Jahrling, vice president of Turner Federal Services, spoke after Perez and said the company wants its workers to have “long healthy retirements”—a reference to the fact that silica-related illnesses sometimes taking decades to appear.
“We look forward to working with the respiratory silica standard,” Jahrling said.
Michaels and Perez said the rule's value should be measured in lives saved.
Inhaled crystalline silica particles can cause illnesses, including an incurable lung disease called silicosis, as well as lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and kidney disease.
OSHA's final calculations on how many deaths will be prevented and implementation costs have changed since the 2013 estimates in the proposed rule.
The rule, when fully implemented, is expected to prevent 642 deaths annually and prevent 918 moderate to severe silicosis cases, for a total annual benefit of $6.39 billion.
The benefits are down from OSHA's figures in the 2013 proposed rule. OSHA had estimated 688 lives would be saved and 1,585 illness prevented for an annual benefit of $5.25 billion.
While the projected benefits decreased, estimated implementation costs increased. Now, OSHA estimates the annual cost of implementing the rule is $1.03 billion, a $352 million increase over the annual costs calculated in the 2013 proposed rule.
The yearly net benefit of the rule is $7.66 billion, up from the $4.62 billion estimated in 2013.
Industry groups have said OSHA has substantially underestimated compliance costs. Based on the 2013 proposed rule's guidance, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimated the annual cost at $1.5 billion to $6 billion .
Michaels said updating the 1971 standard became a priority for his staff after he took the post in 2009. Perez was credited with driving the silica rule through two reviews by the White House's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.
The rulemaking (RIN 1218-AB70) has been ongoing for more than a decade. The small business review was held in 2003.
A notice of proposed rulemaking was issued a decade later in September 2013 (78 Fed. Reg. 56,274), leading to an extended public comment period and about three weeks of public hearings in March 2014 .
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