300+ Experts Urge President Obama to Intervene to Protect Workers from Toxic Dust

January 27, 2012 | 7:58 pm
Michael Halpern
Former Contributor

Last Valentine’s Day, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration sent a proposed science-based rule to the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for review that would protect workers from silica. Regrettably, many months later, the OMB has not acted on the proposal, preventing OSHA from even seeking public input—and public health advocates are getting impatient.

Tile worker from the 1930s

A worker inside a tile-making factory, circa 1936, where exposure to large amounts of silica dust was common. 1.7 million American workers are exposed to silica dust each year. Photo courtesy of the CDC

The OMB is given 90 days – with the possibility of a 45 day extension – to review a proposed rule. But the proposal has sat at the OMB for nearly a year without a response or even a timeline for completion.

Frustrated by the delay, this week more than 300 public health scientists and occupational safety experts sent a letter to President Obama, urging him to intervene and tell OMB to complete the review so that the public comment period on the proposal can begin. The letter received coverage in the Huffington Post, EHS Today, and the Pump Handle.

Crystalline silica, a basic component of soil, sand, granite, and many other minerals, which may become particles small enough to breath in when workers chip, cut, drill, or grind objects, is a long-recognized serious occupational health hazard. Exposure to silica can cause an irreversible, progressive lung disease called silicosis. The CDC completed a hazard review of the Health Effects of Occupational Exposure to Respirable Crystalline Silica (say that ten times fast!) in 2002, finding that in addition to silicosis, studies indicate that silica exposure can increase the risk of lung cancer, pulmonary tuberculosis, and airways diseases.

The scientists have joined the American Industrial Hygiene Association in questioning whether the delay is due to politics. This year, industry representatives have met nine times with OMB staff, raising questions about whether the White House will interfere in the development of this science-based standard.

The Bush administration’s OMB was caught several times weakening, delaying, or outright stopping science-based rules on many topics, including exposure to asbestos, ground-level ozone pollution, endangered species, formaldehyde emissions during plywood production, particulate matter, and the impact of climate change on public health.

OSHA has spent fourteen years developing the proposed rule, and the draft risk assessment was subject to an independent peer review. In December, the National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health wrote the secretaries of Labor and Health and Human Services to emphasize the importance of issuing the proposed silica rule “so that the public hearings and comment period can commence, and a final silica standard issued to protect workers from this serious workplace hazard.”

With each day that passes, more workers are exposed to the harmful particles. “This delay in action by OMB leaves workers at significant risk of disease and death,” according to the letter. “It also prevents the rulemaking process from moving forward, obstructing public participation on this important worker safety and public health matter.”