Unions to OSHA: Cut Workers Exposure to Silica

By Mark Gruenberg

PAI Staff Writer

WASHINGTON (PAI)–The nation’s unions are asking the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to cut worker exposure to silica.  And while they praise OSHA’s proposal to cut exposure in half, some say OSHA doesn’t go far enough.

Their testimony came during three weeks of public hearings on the standards, ending April 4.  The hearings are a key stage before OSHA gets to work on finally drafting a rule to cut worker exposure to the cancer-causing substance.

The controversy over exposure to silica actually started with a federal study in 1974, though an Internet search of material on the issue disclosed a Labor Department publication warning of silica’s hazards – in 1936.  And one witness said silica’s danger to breathing was known during the Roman Empire.

OSHA wants to cut lifetime worker exposure to crystalline silica to 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air.   Silica exposure leads to renal disease, silicosis and lung cancer.

Even the 50% cut leaves a risk of 94 excess deaths per 1000 exposed workers, said Charles Gordon, the Labor Department’s former lead attorney on regulating toxic chemicals.  To put that in perspective, he said the risk of a worker dying from silica-related diseases would be higher than the death risk U.S. soldiers faced in Afghanistan.

The cut to 50 micrograms still leaves exposure too high, said AFL-CIO Safety and Health Director Peg Seminario.  It’s based on 1968 exposure data and technology, she pointed out.  Both measurements and technology to prevent exposure are vastly improved since then – and data show silica-related disease occurs with much smaller exposures, she warned.  She urged OSHA adopt an even lower limit.

Unionists testified about the impact of exposure to silica, and what a new tougher standard would mean to them.  And it’s not just workers in construction and factories, either, they told OSHA.

“Whether it is fixing a roadway or sidewalk, repairing or installing water and sewer lines, or performing maintenance on a bridge, AFSCME members are engaged in activities that risk exposure to silica,” union health and safety specialist Diane Matthew Brown said.

Steelworker Local 593 member Alan White, a now-disabled foundry worker from Buffalo, told OSHA what it’s like, after 16 years on the job, to learn your job made you sick from silicosis.   He was one of nine Steelworkers testifying.

“I worked with or around silica containing products without knowing the dangers or any precautions to make a safer environment for myself,” White said.  “I learned that a dust mask was hardly, if ever, needed to do most jobs there.  Part of my training, encouraged by the culture of the foundry, was that respiratory protection was not necessary unless while skimming slag out of the brass furnaces in order to avoid zinc flu and that protection was only a dust mask.”

White got the mask when he joined the foundry in 1995.   “We were taught that while cleaning or doing other jobs that if we were overcome by dust or other smoke, we should go outside and get some air then come back when we felt better.  An employee who wore a respirator…in the foundry was repeatedly called crazy,” he said.  “Never were there any warnings and no information was freely available about the products we worked with…Only recently, three years after I left the foundry, was there a brief class on respirators.  Not ever a mention of silica, or its dangers.

“It’s easy to think that if there were a stricter OSHA standard for silica in place when I worked in the foundry, I might not be sick.  You’re right.  There are other things you should know in order to have an understanding of some things a stricter standard can help workers and also their employers avoid, based on what happened in my firsthand experience.

“There was the growing problem of being out of breath sooner than I used to… Then, I received a big surprise during the conversation with the first doctor when I found out I have silicosis and I will lose my job. He and the other doctors all agreed the diagnosis is silicosis.

“Watching your wife and other loved ones cry as they figure out what silicosis is was a big hit and then, shortly afterward, there was the radical pay cut from a transfer out of the foundry to a department where I knew nothing because I chose my health over money. “  Had his foundry not been unionized, with USW to go to bat for him and get him a transfer to another decent job there, White would have been fired, he added.

“Establishing a new silica standard is, of course, a matter of permissible exposure limits (PELs) and risk factors and technical controls, economic feasibility and sampling methodology and proper medical evaluations,” said Steelworkers Safety and Health Director Michael Wright.  “But it is also a matter of human beings – of human health and human welfare of fairness and of justice,” Wright added (his emphasis).

Other witnesses and experts, from the Bricklayers, Operating Engineers, Laborers, AFSCME, AFGE and the Auto Workers, told similar stories to OSHA:

“It’s been four decades. Four decades. Workers are still getting sick and dying from silicosis and there is no denying it anymore. Enough is enough.                  Workers in the construction trades are counting on us to enact the new standards. They need protection.  NOW,” Bricklayers President James Boland, leading a 5-man delegation, testified.

Bricklayers members Tom Ward and Dale McNabb from Michigan, Tommy Todd from Oklahoma/Arkansas/Texas, Sean Barrett from New England                          and Dennis Cahill from Arizona/New Mexico told stories of silica exposure, a poison that injured and killed thousands of workers.  OSHA’s proposals, they said, “are reasonable, feasible and necessary to protect workers.”

John A. Adams, president of AFGE Local 2778 in Atlanta, told OSHA that silica exposure occurs in many workplaces outside construction and industry – such as the dental lab in the Atlanta VA hospital which employs his members.

One worker toiled for 46 years in the lab, was exposed to silica dust, cobalt and various chemicals and never told to wear a respirator. “He died of respiratory failure and pathology report showed silicosis,” Adams said.

“Sandblasting of casting can cause exposure to the investment material or the sand itself . Sand is almost 100% crystalline silica,” Adams explained. “Leaks in a blasting box can cause an exposure. Exposure is also caused by opening the door to the blasting box before the dust had settled.  Dust in a blasting box must be removed by a dust collection system to prevent dental lab workers from being exposed to silica.”

“Silica dust is a killer. It causes silicosis, a disabling lung disease that literally suffocates workers to death. It causes lung cancer, other respiratory diseases, and kidney disease as well,” the United Auto Workers testified.  “If finalized, OSHA’s silica rule would help protect more than two million workers exposed to this deadly dust and save hundreds of workers lives each year.  The current OSHA standard is based only on information that was available in 1968.  It allows very high levels of exposure and has no requirements to train workers or monitor exposure  levels.  Simply enforcing the current rule, as some in industry have called for, won’t protect workers.”

One of UAW’s nine workers, Robert Hitchcock of Local 211 in Defiance, Ohio, said his employer, GM, “already protects workers at the proposed standard through new ventilation, preventive maintenance, air monitoring and, when needed, the use of air-cooled respirators.”  If GM can do that, others can, too, he said.  Richard Boecker, the local’s safety rep, added the union contract mandates a health surveillance air sample program. UAW Local 523 President Jeff P’Poole in Kentucky said that melting silica in electric arc furnaces to produce silicon metal “generates dust and smoke so thick for some workers they cannot see.”

John Scardella, program director for the Steelworkers’ Tony Mazzochi center for job safety, emphasized issuing a new tougher rule wasn’t enough.  Workers must be taught about the hazards in advance, trained in how to combat them and get refresher courses, he said.

All workers should be “trained in the knowledge of specific operations that could result in exposure, specific procedures employers implemented to protect employees, the content of the standard and the medical surveillance program required by the standard.  Employee participation in any safety training program is the best practice for adult learners to retain important safety information,” he said.  Training should “be in a manner in which all employees are able to understand.”

Seminario added the final silica rule should establish regulated work areas to limit the number of exposed workers, and that firms must create a written compliance/ exposure control plan.  She also said there should be a stronger standard about which workers are exposed to silica dust, another to require engineering and work practice controls – not masks and respirators – to curb silica exposure and that employers must provide for medical examination of vulnerable workers.

Several witnesses said the feds had sat on a new silica standard for too long.  But business witnesses, and a mass letter-writing campaign they organized beforehand, argued for more delay in the rule – and no change.  OSHA got 1,665 written comments before the hearings, most of them from the mass campaign

“It is tragic that it (the silica rule) was delayed by the administration for more than two years. Workers paid for that delay in death and disability,” USW’s Wright responded.

“We can‘t get those two years back.  But we can move quickly forward to get this rule in place and to lift the burden of silicosis and all the other health effects of silica from workers.  We urge OSHA to complete its work as rapidly as possible, and the administration to promulgate the final standard without delay.”