The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) ended years of speculation by issuing its highly-anticipated final rule on silica exposure in late March. The key provision of the rule with the greatest potential impact to roofing contractors is the reduction of the allowable exposure limit from 250 to 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air averaged over a traditional eight-hour shift.
While government officials and labor unions across the country lauded the new standards, it didn’t take long for the roofing and construction trade associations to voice their opposition. Barely a week after the rule was first unveiled, a group of organizations representing seven national trade associations — led by the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) — filed a formal petition for review of the new standards with the U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans.
In addition to calling the new regulations unattainable with today’s technology, the groups claim OSHA’s provisions demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of the construction business.
“Instead of crafting a new standard that the construction industry can comply with, administration officials have instead opted to set a new standard that is well beyond the capabilities of current air filtration and dust removal technologies,” said AGC CEO Stephen E. Sandherr in a written statement. “Our concern is that this new rule will do little to improve workplace health and safety.”
The American Road and Transportation Builders Association, American Subcontractors Association,Associated Builders and Contractors, Mason Contractors Association of America, Mechanical Contractors Association of America and National Association of Home Builders joined the petition.
The National Roofing Contractors Association was not part of the court filing, but the organization recently issued its own statement highlighting similar concerns.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce also expressed its disapproval and found OSHA’s method for developing the new rule flawed.
“OSHA’s rulemaking process for this regulation displayed extreme bias and even deception,” said Marc Freedman, the Chamber’s director of labor policy, in a written statement. “During the administrative hearing, OSHA representatives conceded that critical testing data was not in the record, and routinely impeded the Chamber’s ability to present its case. The agency relied on aged data and refused to consider modern protective technologies that would make compliance significantly less costly and burdensome.”
Proponents argue that the rule is designed to curb a long list of health problems related to exposure to breathable crystalline silica. Silica exposure is tied to several serious illnesses including lung cancer, silicosis and kidney disease. Roughly 2.3 million American workers are exposed to silica dust, including 2 million construction workers that drill, cut, or grind concrete or stone, according to OSHA’s website. Officials estimate the rule will save more than 600 lives and prevent more than 900 new cases of silicosis annually once full implementation begins.
OSHA set two standards — one for the construction industry, and one for general industry and maritime operations, effective on June 23. Employers will now have to:
· Use engineering controls like water or ventilation to mitigate exposure levels;
· Provide respirator when those controls cannot limit exposure;
· Limit worker access to high-exposure areas;
· Develop a written exposure plan
· Offer medical exams to highly-exposed employees
· Train workers on silica risks and best practices to eliminate exposure.
The construction industry is required to be in full compliance first, with a deadline of June 23, 2017.
OSHA created a dedicated page on its website to the final rule for more information.