As White House Dawdles, More Workers Get Sick from Silica Exposure

February 6, 2013
Michael Halpern
Former contributor

Nearly two years after receiving a science-based proposal from the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) to protect workers from exposure to toxic crystalline silica dust, the White House Office of Management and Budget refuses to allow the agency to even seek feedback on its proposal. Public health advocates have put together a petition on the White House website urging the White House to act. The petition is worthy of your signature.

Overexposure to breathable crystalline silica causes an irreversible lung disease called silicosis. At least 1.7 million American workers are potentially exposed to this hazard. Since OSHA sent its proposal to the White House for review on February 14, 2011, we can estimate that 400 people have died from silicosis, and as many as 14,600 new cases of silicosis were diagnosed.

These deaths and illnesses are preventable.

Incredibly, we’re just talking about the first step in the process here. OSHA isn’t asking the White House to approve a final rule. It is simply asking the White House to allow the agency to collect public comments on its draft proposal. We’re still many months and likely years away from a final silica public health standard.

In other words, if the Obama administration intends on taking action during the president’s second term to protect workers from this entirely preventable disease, it needs to remove the logjam now.

Construction workers using jackhammers

A science-based proposal to protect workers from toxic silica dust, a byproduct of many construction activities, has been held up by the White House for nearly two years. Photo: Flickr user MGChan

More than three hundred public health scientists wrote the president last January urging him to stop the White House from gumming up the works. “The OSHA proposed rule on crystalline silica needs to be issued,” the scientists wrote, “So that the public, workers, unions, public health experts and employers have the full opportunity to participate in the development of this important worker protection measure.”

Their plea fell on deaf ears, perhaps because of administration desires to appease industry representatives in advance of the November election. The delay came after nine meetings between the White House and industry groups apparently opposed to even discussing how to best protect workers from unnecessary exposure to silica dust.

OSHA started working on this proposal in 1997. That’s when Bill Clinton started his second term. A gallon of gasoline cost $1.22. Mike Tyson bit Evander Holyfield’s ear. We watched Titanic and The Full Monty in theaters. Tony Blair became prime minister of England. And Hansen was topping the charts.

We’re past the election. It’s time for the White House to let OSHA advance its science-based proposal. Delay only leads to more deaths and more disease.