Congress Members Give OSHA Pushback on New Silica Standard

Last week Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez appeared at a hearing in which several members of congress expressed doubt as to the need for a proposed OSHA rule on silica that would both strengthen regulation and involve increased funding for enforcement. OSHA first published the rule for public comment in September of 2013.

The hearing — convened by the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies Subcommittee — reviewed the Department of Labor’s proposed budget, including funding for the proposed silica rule. In a statement on its website, OSHA has said it “estimates that the proposed rule will save nearly 700 lives and prevent 1,600 new cases of silicosis per year.” OSHA also claims the revised rule is the result of newly available scientific studies that show the negative health impacts of exposure to respirable crystalline silica. OSHA notes that the current enforceable standard for silica PELs in general industry had not been updated in over 40 years.

However, at the congressional committee meeting, it was clear that many members had concerns about the impacts of enforcing the new standard. Especially at issue were job creation and costs to industry.

Committee member Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) said that “one of the greatest drivers of jobs and economic growth right now is the energy industry” and that “it’s unclear that OSHA is making its determination of how to measure silica on a scientific basis.” He also questioned why the proposed rule would not permit a PPE air filter helmet, which he said he had used personally in his capacity as a physician and surgeon.

Rep. Charles Dent (R-PA) said “We all want to deal with silica, but there are ways [to do it] in a more technologically feasible manner.”  Rep. Dent said that an independent study had concluded that it would cost the American construction industry approximately $4 billion to comply with OSHA’s proposed silica exposure limit — contrary to OSHA’s own cost estimate of $640 million for all American industries — and asked if OSHA would consider allowing ”alternatives which are technologically and economically feasible.”  He also pointed out that the current industry compliance standard is 70 percent for silica dust, and wondered why OSHA would choose to create a new rule instead of pursuing compliance with current regulation.

Secretary Perez did not always directly respond to each question asked by the subcommittee, but he argued that the dangers of silica exposure have been known for many years. He said that OSHA had solicited input on the rule directly from the hydraulic fracturing industry, saying that the rulemaking process had been “long and appropriately inclusive.” He also implied that OSHA was mindful of any potential impact of this rule on job creation. Secretary Perez stood by his position that it would directly save lives, saying at one point: “Everybody who goes to work in the morning ought to be entitled to know they’re coming home safe and sound.”

The comment period for this proposed final rule was unique in OSHA’s history because for the first time OSHA requested that anyone submitting scientific research as part of their comment include information on the sources that had funded the research. OSHA received approximately 1,600 comments on this proposed rule during the comment period.

If last week’s hearing was any indication, the U.S. Congress is likely to continue to express concern about the proposed silica rule, and to push back against its implementation in the days ahead.