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Another Voice: Pending new rules on silica exposure will save lives

By Gregory A. Stoner

Many believe that American jobsites are exceptionally safe, such that we need not concern ourselves with the conditions under which workers labor anymore. But in a number of industries, this is not at all true. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration recently brought a serious, perennial health risk facing many working people to attention: crystalline silica (or “silica” simply).

Silica is found on various worksites – especially in the construction and hydrofracking industries – in concrete, rock and soil. Those who are tasked with sawing, sanding, chiseling, drilling or in multiple other ways manipulating these materials release minute particles of silica, or dust, into the air. They can be inhaled.

Silica dust can also be produced by cutting metal-cast products. Respiration of silica may lead to lung cancer or silicosis, the latter of which is an irreversible condition. Among the complications that can arise from silicosis are shortness of breath, weakness and hard coughing. More gravely, silicosis can result in death, from respiratory failure and infections.

In an old OSHA film, “Can’t Take No More,” worker Robert Samuel, who contracted silicosis from his job, described life with his condition thusly: “I can walk about maybe a block … block and a half … that’s about the best I can do. … And a lot of nights I wake up and … be coughing … and still spit up that dust … You don’t know … tomorrow, next week, next year … you might go.”

The CDC reported in 2011 that silicosis remains a significant problem; a summary of its findings includes the claim that more than 2 million workers “were potentially exposed to crystalline silica dust in general industry, construction and maritime industries.” This resulted, based on data gathered from 2000 to 2005, in about 162 deaths per year from silicosis and approximately 1,975 new diagnoses of silicosis each year.

Given the threat that silica poses, it is a relief that OSHA is implementing a new standard to limit exposure. And it is especially important that the public learn of this, in that OSHA is hoping to receive feedback from concerned citizens in refining this pending regulation.

OSHA expects that the proposed rule will save around 700 lives (note that the previously cited figure refers only to deaths related to silicosis; other fatal consequences can obtain through exposure) and forestall 1,600 cases of silicosis every year, when its full effects are realized. With Workers’ Memorial Day fast approaching, this is a welcome development.

Gregory A. Stoner is director of Apprenticeship & Journeymen Upgrading for the Finishing Trades Institute of Western & Central New York in Cheektowaga.