Silica dust safety rules may be outdated, unsafe for workers

Exposure to particulates in the workplace can pose a health risk to workers. A century ago, grain mills without adequate ventilation technology may have exposed workers to unhealthy levels of flour dust, resulting in a condition commonly referred to as white lung. The modern equivalent turns out to be silica dust.

Silica dust comes from silica, or crystalline quartz. Workers in the fields of granite quarrying, mining, stone cutting, blasting, road and building construction, and manufacturing might be exposed to this dust. In fact, as many as 2 million workers in the United States might be exposed to silica dust in their workplaces each year. 

Breathing the dust in excess quantities might result in lung scarring disease, a condition known as silicosis. Each year, around 200 American workers die from silicosis and 7,300 more are diagnosed with the disease. In addition, officials at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration estimate that exposure to excess silica dust may be causing lung disease and/or cancer in workers numbering in the thousands each year.

Despite the apparent size of the problem, OSHA’s safety regulations that set exposure limits for silica dust have not been revised in 40 years. Yet one federal official cautions that silicosis occurs at exposure levels below the current OSHA standard. As a workers’ compensation attorney might agree, failing to take adequate safety precautions might result in employer liability for lost wages and medical expenses of employees who were injured on the job. Unfortunately, corporate lobbying interests might resist any change to the rules -- which are presented to the public for comments and public hearings before they become final.

Source: articles.washingtonpost.com, “OSHA seeks new limits on silica dust,” Aug. 23, 2013

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