Another stall by Trump on silica standard

Sept 23, 2017 - More than 50 American workers can be expected to die – including an untold number in construction – under the Trump Administration’s refusal for another month to enforce new standards to limit on-the-job exposure to silica.

The new rules designed to keep workers from inhaling silica crystals were developed under the Obama Administration last year, the first such update to regulate such deadly, lung-scarring exposures since 1971.

Initially scheduled to go into effect June 23, the standards were ordered shelved for three months by Trump’s Department of Labor due to complaints registered earlier this year by a coalition of industry groups led by the Associated Builders & Contractors. They protested that the new rules were “infeasible and unworkable.”

ABC lobbyists lodged their protest despite an OSHA review process under Obama that included 14 days of public hearings, participation by more than  200 labor, industry and other stakeholders, and the acceptance of more than 2,000 comments into the public record.

Still, Trump’s labor officials want to, in effect, push the enforcement date back another month.

Thomas Galassi, the department’s acting deputy assistant secretary, said in a memo, “During the first 30 days of the new rules, OSHA will carefully evaluate good faith efforts taken by employers in their attempts to meet the new construction silica standard.”

The agency, Galassi’s memo said, “will assist employers who are making good faith efforts” to comply. If they’re not trying, the employers “may” be subject to citation, but only after a review by OSHA’s national office, the memo said.

Here’s another way of reading the Galassi memo: if employers break the rules, they won’t necessarily be cited, and if they make it look like they’re trying to comply, they will for sure escape punishment. And if they are bad actors, there’s still no guarantee of a citation, and even if one is issued, it has to be approved in Washington, D.C., by Trump Administration officials who are committed to breaking down what they call “the administrative state.”

While Trump’s people play footsie with the silica rules, it’s important to remember what’s at stake here: workers’ lives.

According to the Center for Disease Control, about 143 people die every year from silicosis, the disease that steals the breath of its victims. Silica exposure also has been connected to occupational pneumoconiosis fatalities, as well as lung cancer, pulmonary tuberculosis and a host of other illnesses.

An estimated 2.3 million workers across the country have been exposed to silica in some 600,000 workplaces, according to OSHA, including 2 million in the construction industry. Jackhammers, tile cutters, masonry saws, and heavy equipment demolition are among several construction areas where the risk of exposure is greatest.

The new standards would have required employers to limit their workers’ potential exposure to silica. One method would have made them apply water and use ventilation to reduce dust. Another example would be for employers to provide respirators depending on whether their employees were working indoors or outside and on how many hours they are on the job.

When, and if, the new standards go into effect, it will be the first update to the OSHA standards in 46 years. They are expected to save 600 lives and prevent 900 new silicosis cases every year, according to Jordan Barab, the former deputy assistant secretary of OSHA who now publishes the definitive online worker safety bulletin, Confined Space.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in April that the initial three-month delay in imposing the standards would lead to the deaths of 160 additional workers. Using the same calculations, the failure for another month by the federal government to get tough on silica exposure will lead to at least 50 more occupational fatalities.

In the meantime, the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California is doing its part to try and head off every single silica exposure that we can for all of our more than 400,000 members. Towards that end, the council is offering free training to all of our affiliates on how to deter such exposures at their work sites. For more information, contact the SBCTC office at 916-443-3302. 

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