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OSHA takes steps to further protect workers from silica exposure

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, much like asbestos, crystalline silica is a natural material that's "found abundantly in the earth's crust." Also like asbestos, when breathed in, silica dust can become imbedded in lung tissue which can result in the development of many health problems including lung cancer, silicosis and kidney disease.

Recognizing the serious health risks that silica posed to workers in many industries, OSHA first established silica exposure limits in the 1970s. OSHA's rule required that construction employers reduce exposure to silica material to “250 micograms per per cubic meter” during an eight-hour working day while liming exposure rates in other industries to 100 micrograms per working shift. In the decades since, millions of workers have been exposed to levels at or exceeding these limits and many paid the ultimate price.

OSHA recently announced that it is reducing silica exposure limits to 50 micrograms per eight-hour period for all industries. Annually, OSHA expects the rule change to "save 600 lives and prevent 900 new cases of silicosis." While the prospect of preventing thousands of workers from dying and being stricken with debilitating health conditions is welcome news to the millions of workers who are exposed to silica and to workers' rights advocates, the rule change is being criticized by various trade groups.

Of the 2.3 million workers the U.S. Labor Department estimates are most at risk for silica exposure, roughly 2 million work within the construction industry. Employers within the construction industry must ensure that they are in compliance with the new silica exposure rule by 2018.

Source: The New York Times, "New Rules Aim to Reduce Silica Exposure at Work Sites," Barry Meier, March 24, 2016

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