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Hearings held on the new silica exposure limits

Very few people would choose to accept a position at a workplace if they knew that in accepting that position, they would be routinely exposed to a toxic substance and placed at an elevated risk of developing a chronic and potentially fatal health condition. But when it comes to toxic exposure in the workplace, skilled workers in several construction and industrial trades are in fact routinely exposed to just such a scenario.

Among the most prevalent hazards faced by these workers is exposure to silica dust. While minimal and short-term exposure to this substance does not necessarily cause a noticeable health impact, long-term exposure can result in diseases including asthma, tuberculosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and several types of cancer. Unfortunately, the current standards for limiting exposure to silica dust have not been updated since the 1970s. And in many cases, employers aren’t even abiding by the out-of-date regulations.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is working to address both of these problems in order to protect the roughly 2.2 million American workers who may be exposed to the dust. Several government agencies recently held three weeks of hearings on the matter, which culminated in newly proposed standards that would reduce permissible exposure to silica dust by half.

OSHA and other proponents of stricter regulation argue that the changes would be relatively inexpensive to implement and could prevent thousands of cases of occupational disease and 700 deaths annually. As expected, however, representatives of certain industries are opposed to the changes, calling them too expensive and burdensome.

With all we now know about toxic exposure and the effects of silica dust in particular, continuing to rely on outdated standards with few enforcement mechanisms seems almost criminally negligent. Moreover, workers who have been exposed to silica dust for decades without being warned of its risks deserve to be adequately compensated when they develop exposure-related illnesses. It is time to update exposure standards and to enforce them strictly.

Source: NBC News, “Dangerous Dust: Government Pushes to Improve Workplace Safety,” Maggie Fox, April 4, 2014

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