Alan White is a 48-year-old foundry worker from Buffalo, N.Y. – he’s in the local steelworkers union, employed at the same foundry where his father also worked. He just became a grandfather. Three years ago, Alan went to a doctor who did a series of tests and told him that he had contracted silicosis, a debilitating lung disease he got from being exposed to silica at his job.
I met Alan last year on a trip he made to Washington to talk about how he got silicosis and the effects of the disease on his life. This is what he told me:
“I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, I eat organic foods, I don’t eat much red meat. Now I know that my lifestyle probably won’t benefit my long-term health because of the devastating effects of silica exposure. As a new grandfather, I probably will not be able to run with my grandchild through the park as I had hoped. Even simple tasks like walking and talking on a cell phone are difficult and my outlook is downhill from here.”
Earlier today, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration proposed a new rule to protect workers from silica exposure, and we’re reaching out to stakeholders for their help to develop a final rule with effective solutions that will protect workers like Alan.
Crystalline silica kills hundreds of American workers and sickens thousands more each year. These very small silica dust particles are hazardous when workers breathe them in. They can cause silicosis – an incurable and progressive disease. Workers can be exposed to airborne silica dust from cutting, sawing, drilling and crushing concrete, brick, block and other stone products. They also can be exposed during operations that use sand products such as glass manufacturing, sand blasting and −as in Alan’s case −foundry work.
In addition to silicosis, breathing in silica dust also increases workers’ risk of lung cancer, kidney disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. By lowering exposures to respirable silica, the proposed rule is aimed at preventing these debilitating respiratory diseases from devastating the lives of American workers. In fact, OSHA estimates that the proposed rule would save nearly 700 lives per year and prevent 1,600 new cases of silicosis annually, once the full effects of the rule are realized.
This proposal is long overdue. OSHA’s current standards for protecting workers from silica exposure are dangerously out-of-date and do not adequately protect workers’ health. OSHA’s current standard is more than 40 years old, is based on research from the 1960s and earlier, and does not reflect more recent scientific evidence about the health effects of inhaling even small amounts of silica dust. Since the time when these limits were established in 1971, numerous studies have found increased risk of lung cancer among silica-exposed workers, and respirable silica has been classified as a human carcinogen by the U.S. National Toxicology Program, the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. It’s time to bring workplace protections into the 21st century.
Protecting workers under the proposed rule is not difficult or expensive. The rule suggests using very commonsense control measures to protect workers’ lives and lungs − things like wetting down materials to keep dust out of the air or using a simple vacuum to collect dust. Tools that use these methods are readily available; consumers can even find them at local big box retailers. The rule, which includes separate standards for general industry and maritime employment and for construction, would also give employers flexibility to tailor the best solution for their businesses.
Public comments on the proposal can be submitted through written comments and by participating in hearings. The proposed rule has already incorporated many suggestions and ideas provided by industry groups, small businesses, scientists and other stakeholders.
The workers affected by silica are husbands, fathers, sisters and brothers − just like Alan, and just like Bill Ellis. A painter and sandblaster from Tennessee who died of silicosis, Bill left behind a large family of grandchildren and great-grandchildren he’ll never know because of an entirely preventable disease. You can learn more about Bill in this video about silicosis’ tragic effects.
In 1938, Frances Perkins, then secretary of labor under President Franklin Roosevelt, recorded a video titled “Stop Silicosis,” which you can view here. “With control measures conscientiously adopted and applied,” she says, “silicosis can be prevented!” It has been 75 years since Frances Perkins committed the Labor Department to eradicating silicosis in the United States. This proposal is an important step forward in fulfilling that commitment.
Something else Alan said really struck me: “When I got my job at the foundry I […] thought I was set. I was ready and willing to give my all to work. But I never realized that that included my life.” By proposing this rule, we want to make sure that no more workers like Alan or Bill give their lives for their jobs.
To get more information about the proposed rules, the rulemaking process and how you can participate, visit www.osha.gov/silica. We’re looking forward to your help!
Dr. David Michaels is the assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health.