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OSHA focus on silica dust: new workplace exposure limits proposed

Given the nature of the work, many activities within the construction industry obviously bring with them a potential for on-the-job accidents and injuries.

Although construction injuries in Ohio and nationally are often associated with the perils attached to heavy machinery, working from heights, dangers from cave ins, explosions and electrical and burn accidents, one much more subtle and insidious safety concern has also occupied OSHA’s attention for decades.

That is silica dust and the sometimes deadly ailment known as silicosis. An estimated two million-plus workers are exposed to silica dust each year at their workplaces, and that exposure can have debilitating and, sometimes, fatal consequences.

In fact, an estimated 200 workers die from exposure annually, with many thousands of other cases of silicosis developing in employees who work on construction jobs such as stone cutting, masonry and jack hammering.

Federal regulators seek to do something about that through introduction of more stringent federal standards regulating the amount of silica dust that workers can be exposed to legally.

“To truly protect the American worker, you need to lower the exposure level,” says OSHA chief David Michaels.

The current exposure ceiling on silica has been in place for approximately four decades, and Michaels states that workers contract silicosis “at exposures below the current standard.”

That is why a new standard is being pushed, with a federal proposal being recently announced that calls for a material slashing of the amount of silica dust that will be allowed in any work environment. The new federal proposal would cut exposure by 80 percent for the construction industry.

The OSHA recommendation does not equate to law, however. The proposal is now open for public comments, which will be following by hearings.

Many business and industry groups are expected to object strenuously to the changes on grounds that they would be prohibitively expensive and difficult to implement. Some critics contend that they are simply unnecessary.

Those voices can expect a strong response from OSHA regulators and the United States Department of Labor.

Source: Washington Post, "OSHA seeks new limits on silica dust," Aug. 23, 2013

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