Workers and Economy to Gain From New Workplace Safety Standards

Last month, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) published a long-delayed proposed rule establishing a comprehensive standard to protect more than two million U.S. workers from exposure to silica in general, construction, and maritime industries.

Workers who inhale these very small crystalline silica particles are at increased risk of developing serious diseases. These tiny, sand-like particles (known as “respirable” particles) can penetrate deep into workers’ lungs and cause silicosis, an incurable and sometimes fatal lung disease. Silica exposure also puts workers at risk for developing lung cancer, potentially debilitating respiratory diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and kidney disease.

OSHA is proposing to replace outdated, 40-year-old exposure limits for silica with two new standards to improve worker protection: one for general industry and maritime, and another for construction. The new proposed standards contain a permissible exposure limit (PEL) and other compliance requirements, including employee exposure assessments, regulated areas, methods of compliance, respiratory protections, medical surveillance, communication of silica hazards to employees, and recordkeeping. The proposals are based on an extensive review of the scientific evidence, current industry consensus standards, and OSHA’s outreach efforts, which have included stakeholder meetings, conferences, and meetings with employer and employee organizations.

OSHA estimates that the proposed rule will save nearly 700 lives and prevent 1,600 new cases of silicosis per year once the full effects of the rule are realized. The proposed rule is estimated to provide average net benefits of about $2.8 to $4.7 billion annually over the next 60 years. The total cumulative costs to covered firms between 2014 and 2023 are expected to be $6.6 billion dollars, or 0.035 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP).

Lowering silica exposure can generally be accomplished by using common dust control methods, such as wetting down work operations to keep silica-containing dust from getting into the air, enclosing an operation, or using a vacuum to collect dust before workers can inhale it.  Most of the compliance costs for this rule arise from implementation of engineering controls, respirators, medical and air quality surveillance, employee safety training, and regulated area or access control. These methods are expected to result in annual costs of about $1,242 for the average workplace covered by the rule. The annual cost to a firm with fewer than 20 employees would be even less, averaging about $550.

The proposed rule is expected to have a small but positive impact on total U.S. employment. In 2014, the rule would result in an increase of 5,830 jobs. Overall, this rule is expected to create 8,625 jobs between 2014 and 2023. The overall positive employment impact is due mostly to additional jobs created in the construction industry, though cumulative employment in other sectors is expected to decline slightly.

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