By Joe Kamalick
WASHINGTON (ICIS)--A broad range of industries this week urged the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to abandon its proposed new limits on silica exposure, warning that it could undermine operations and employment across the nation.
In August last year, OSHA said in a proposed rule that it would lower the permissible exposure limits (PELs) for crystalline silica to a workday maximum of 50 micrograms per cubic metre (mcg/m3) of air from the current PEL of 100 mcg/m3.
In proposing the rule, OSHA said that current levels of silica exposure in a wide variety of workplace environments were unacceptable and responsible for thousands of fatal cases of lung cancer, silicosis, pulmonary and kidney diseases.
OSHA said that if the rule were implemented as proposed, it would “result in saving nearly 700 lives per year and preventing 1,600 new cases of silicosis annually”.
But a variety of industries have objected in their filings this week, arguing that OSHA is proposing silica standards that are unreasonable, cost-prohibitive and probably unattainable in any event.
The Crystalline Silica Panel (CSP), a coalition of chemical, mining, minerals, stone and building products manufacturers among others, argued in its comments to OSHA that “whatever regulatory action OSHA takes with regard to [the new PEL] will reverberate widely throughout the US economy - affecting more than 2m jobs, none of which we can afford to lose”.
The panel noted that silica “is the second most abundant mineral in the Earth’s crust (12%), that it is ubiquitous in rocks, gravel, sand and soils, and that plays a crucial role in manufacturing, transportation and everyday life”.
To begin with, said the CSP, the existing OSHA standard for silica exposure, 100 mcg/m3, has been shown to be effective in reducing silica-related diseases.
“While instances of silica-related disease can still be found in American workplaces, the numbers are dramatically lower than what was seen in the years before the current PEL was adopted in 1971,” the CSP argued.
The silica-related diseases that persist, said the comment, are almost certainly attributed to widespread violations of the existing PEL.
“OSHA’s own data indicate that the PEL is exceeded in about 30% of the samples taken by its compliance officers year after year,” the CSP noted, adding that other OSHA data show that more than 500,000 workers are being exposed to levels above 100 mcg/m3 and another 265,000 workers are exposed to levels above 250 mcg/m3.
In other words, the industry argues, better enforcement and compliance would prove more productive than an impossibly tougher standard.
The CSP - which includes the American Petroleum Institute (API), ExxonMobil Corporation, the American Insulation Manufacturers Association and Vulcan Materials Company, among others - also argues that OSHA has not demonstrated that reducing the PEL to 50 mcg/m3 would generate any change in mortality or morbidity in silica-exposed workers.
More to the point, the industries coalition contends, OSHA “has not established that it would be technologically feasible to achieve and maintain compliance with the proposed PEL” of 50 mcg/m3.
“Engineering controls capable of reducing exposures to 50 mcg/m3 and maintaining them below that level are not available for various industry sectors,” CSP argues, “particularly since OSHA takes the position that a PEL may never be exceeded - which means that long-term average exposures must be maintained at a level that is significantly below the PEL in order to remain in compliance at all times.”
In addition, the comment says, silica exposure levels of 50 mcg/m3 cannot be reliably measured with existing detection technologies.
The CSP argues that even OSHA itself cannot “reliably measure crystalline silica exposures with an acceptable degree of accuracy and precision at concentrations of 50 mcg/m3 and below”.
“OSHA implicitly acknowledges this very real concern by providing laboratories with a two-year period - beyond the effective compliance date for affected employers - to achieve the desired degree of analytical compliance,” said the comment.
It will be virtually impossible, the comment contends, “for employers to reliably determine whether they are in compliance with the proposed PEL and whether actions triggered by exposures above the proposed action level need to be taken”.
OSHA’s “cart-before-the-horse approach” will make matters worse, the CSP argues, adding that “The proposed standard is technologically infeasible for these reasons alone.”
Industry also contends that the proposed silica standard would cause major financial disruption and job losses among a variety of industries.
OSHA estimated that the cost of compliance for its new silica standard would be approximately $132.5m annually across all pertinent US industries.
But according to a study done for the CSP by the analysis firm Environomics, the cost to industry of complying with the 50 mcg/m3 standard would exceed $8.6bn each year.
Environomics president Stuart Sessions said that “It is my opinion that the proposed [silica] standard is not economically feasible for nearly all sectors in general industry”.
CSP warned that the financial impact of the more stringent silica PEL “would have devastating impact on the revenues and profits of many employers, imperilling the long-term profitability and competitive structure of various industry sectors and likely resulting the widespread loss of jobs in the American economy”.
Among the US industries that might suffer financial and employment losses is the home-building sector.
The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) said this week that OSHA’s proposed silica restrictions would require “impractical medical surveillance of construction industry workers, extensive and costly recordkeeping and restrictions on certain construction site work practices, which contradict existing safety procedures”.
NAHB chairman Kevin Kelly charged that “The real problem here is that OSHA doesn’t understand how this rule would work on real world residential construction sites”.
He also argued that the proposed OSHA rule “runs contrary to data from the national Centers for Disease Control [CDC] that shows a sharp decline in incidences of silicosis in recent decades”.
“OSHA has not explained how drastically lowering the PEL will effectively reduce the current number of silica-related illnesses and deaths,” Kelly said.
“NAHB believes the rule is economically and technologically unfeasible for the industry to comply with,” Kelly added.
He suggested that OSHA withdraw the proposed rule and take more time to gather comprehensive, real-world exposure data.
That appears unlikely.
OSHA says that following the end of the public comment period this week, it will schedule a series of hearings around the country, to be followed by additional public comment. A final rule is expected later this year.
Paul Hodges studies key influences shaping the chemical industry in Chemicals and the Economy