White House, Finally, Releases Silica Rule

August 23, 2013 | 4:57 pm
Michael Halpern
Former Contributor

And now, for some good news. After more than two years of unnecessary delay, the White House Office of Management and Budget has finally allowed the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) to move forward with a proposed rule to protect workers from exposure to silica dust. I hope this is a sign that the White House will allow federal agencies to develop science-based public protections that advance their public health missions. That said, the development of the silica rule has been a fiasco, and much of the blame for delay lies with the White House.

I have written about this several times, but to recap:

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 annually. The disease, and the deaths and illness that is causes, are entirely preventable. 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.


Image courtesy of Flickr user troycochrane.

OSHA sent its proposal to the White House for review on February 14, 2011. After a rule is submitted, the White House is required to review it within 90 days, and has the option of extending the review period for another month.

They took two-and-one-half years.

More than three hundred public health scientists wrote the president more than 18 months ago urging him to stop the White House from gumming up the works. 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.

In June 2013, a New York Times editorial justly criticized the White House for holding up scores of science-based public protections on everything from exposure to toxic silica dust to the prevention of food-borne illness.

Note that this is a proposed rule. All this means is that OSHA can now move forward and accept public comments on its proposal. We’re still many months and potentially years away from a final silica public health standard.

But it’s certainly a step forward. Public health advocates, such as the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, are encouraged.

OSHA started working on this proposal in 1997. That’s when, in a moment of breathless, non-stop entertainment, Leonardo DiCaprio became the king of the world. We breathlessly awaited the Hale-Bopp comet. We learned that Dolly the sheep had been cloned.

For the sake of workers currently being exposed to unsafe levels of silica dust, let’s hope that any additional delays are minimal.