Last week the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) finally released its final silica rule and practically the first thing Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez did was to apologize for taking so long. As part of the announcement, he recounted a number of stories about so many workers who died from having inhaled silica. He ended the announcement by noting that public policy was finally beginning to catch up with science.
OSHA’s new regulation limits workers’ exposure to silica by 80 percent and it requires all employers to take steps to limit worker exposure to silica, by providing them with both respiratory protection where necessary and by employing engineering controls to limit exposure, including the use of water, vacuums, contaminated area isolation or ventilation, as long as the method used decreases exposure.
In addition to those measures, under the new rules, employers will be required to provide regular medical exams to highly exposed workers and they will also be required to provide workers who are exposed to silicon offer medical surveillance to employees exposed to silica in an amount as low as half the minimum exposure.
The final rule on silica exposure was published on March 25, and it will take effect in 90 days, which means June 23, 2016. However, construction employers have until June 23, 2017 to comply with the new requirements and all other employers, including those working in the oil and gas industry, like those engaged in fracking, will have until June 23, 2018. Every year, approximately 2.3 million workers work with materials containing silica, including concrete, brick and stone. In all, more than two million such workers are employed in the construction and oil and gas industries alone.
Though OSHA notes that most of the methods used to reduce silica exposure are relatively easy and inexpensive to implement, several industry groups representing the construction industry have been actively fighting the new rule, claiming that the rules are neither technologically nor economically feasible.
These rules are important because workers who breathe in large amounts of silica can develop silicosis, which, in turn, can lead to a large number of severe lung ailments, including tuberculosis and/or lung cancer. The CDC says that hundreds of people die from exposure to silica every year. Early-onset symptoms can include a chronic cough, fever and shortness of breath. However, in its later stages, those symptoms can worsen and can also include chest pain, chronic fatigue, extreme weight loss and respiratory failure. The disease is incurable, and usually requires many years of intense and expensive medical treatment. In some extreme cases, a lung transplant may be necessary.
While it’s good that OSHA is taking worker silica exposure seriously and that they are taking steps to mitigate the potential damage, but in many cases, it may be too little too late. If you or a loved one has become ill while working at an oil or gas fracking or construction site, see a doctor immediately. If anyone is diagnosed with silicosis, please contact the highly experienced Texas Workplace Injury Lawyer at the Hill Law Firm as soon as possible, so that we can put our knowledge and experience to the test and help you protect your rights.