Will OSHA Tackle Silica Dust Under Obama?

U.S. President Barack Obama has shown that he is sometimes able to pass legislation in areas where previous executive leaders have tried and failed. Regardless of your personal perspective on issues like health care reform and same-sex marriage, Obama’s administration has generated movement on these issues that was never there before. With about 490 days left in office, many in the EHS space are wondering if Obama will use the tail-end of his presidency to tackle yet another historically-stubborn issue: silica dust safety.

Silicosis is one of the oldest-known occupational hazards. Ancient Greeks understood that stonecutters got sick from breathing the dust of the stones they cut. U.S. labor secretaries have been warning of the dangers of silica dust since the 1930s. In 1971, OSHA instituted a PEL for silica dust (around 250 micrograms per cubic meter for construction and maritime workers, and 100 micrograms for other workers), restricting the amount of silica to which workers could be legally exposed. However, in subsequent years, worker safety advocates and regulatory entities—including the CDC and OSHA itself — have argued that these levels are still too high, and that stricter silica PELs are needed.

At times, the U.S. executive branch has also gotten involved in this issue. In the final days of the Reagan administration, OSHA issued new PELs for air contaminants, including silica, but the rule was challenged and overturned by a federal court of appeals which ruled that “OSHA failed to establish that existing exposure limits in the workplace presented significant risk of material health impairment or that new standards eliminated or substantially lessened the risk.”  In subsequent administrations (under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush), OSHA publicly drew attention to the dangers posed by silica, but did not attempt further regulation.

That changed in 2013 when, for the first time since the 1980s, OSHA issued a new proposed rule on silica that would lower PELs, strengthen regulation, and boost funding for enforcement. Reaction from opponents was swift, with many claiming that the new standard would be cost-prohibitive and fail to contain the problem. Opponents also claimed that OSHA’s efforts would be better spent by more strenuously enforcing existing silica dust rules than by making new ones. OSHA Assistant Secretary Dr. David Michaels has stated that despite this resistance, he expects the rule to become law in 2016.

Here, speculation begins, as industry experts wonder if pushing through a new silica rule is on the docket for the rest of President Obama’s term.

It has been noted that OSHA initially sent its silica rule to the executive branch for what was to be a 90-day review back in 2011, but the administration held on to the bill for over two years. Did this action suppress the bill and hurt its chances, or does the extended delay indicate an investment of time and energy by the Obama administration into its success and passage?

Others have suggested that the fate of more silica regulation may rest on the president’s willingness to compromise with congressional Republicans. For example, in late June, Republicans attached a rider to the budget bill for the Department of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education that would specifically prevent OSHA from enforcing any new silica rules until it conducts new research on the ability of industry to comply with new PELs and the ability of PPE to protect workers. Under the amendment, OSHA would be given one year and $800,000 to conduct this research. This bill will likely become part of a larger appropriations measure, which the president will have the option to veto.

With the current congress and President Obama’s terms both scheduled to end in January of 2017, it may be the case that EHS professionals seeking to learn the future of silica regulation will need to keep their eyes on Washington D.C. for the next year and a half.