Industry tackles incendiary silica rule

In a unified front, concrete, cement and aggregate interests question the scientific basis, worker benefit claims, enforcement feasibility and compliance costs at the heart of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking On Occupational Exposure to Respirable Crystalline Silica.

OSHA received many negative comments to its proposed reduction of permissible exposure limits (PEL) for quartz from current General Industry and Construction thresholds, 100 and 250 micrograms per cubic meter of air (μg/m3), respectively, to a uniform 50 μg/m3. By the National Precast Concrete Association’s reading, the proposed rule would present significant challenges in terms of reducing the potential respirable silica exposure to an almost nonexistent level; increasing the specifications on when respirators are required; and, accurately measuring a new respirable silica concentration threshold with any level of certainty based on currently available technology.

Following a public comment period that saw NPCA weigh in along with five peer groups representing key U.S. concrete production sectors, the agency scheduled mid-March to early April public hearings at the Department of Labor headquarters in Washington, D.C. OSHA officials will hopefully take to heart the serious concerns construction materials industry representatives express on the proposed PEL threshold.

In a review of public comment submissions and likely hearing presentation material (pages 6-10), we see the critical role of government affairs for an industry confronting an impractical and expensive proposal OSHA advances in the name of healthier workplaces. National Ready Mixed Concrete Association President Robert Garbini cites the effectiveness of current regulations in protecting member producers’ workers, noting: “The continued compliance with and enforcement of current silica regulations, engineering controls, and proper protective equipment use, properly and effectively limit worker silica exposure.”

“The best available science, to our understanding, shows that the current OSHA PEL for quartz is appropriate to protect against silica-related disease, provided it is adhered to strictly. Accordingly, achieving full compliance with, and enforcement of, the current PEL for general industry is the best way to protect silica-exposed workers,” contends the American Chemistry Council Crystalline Silica Panel, whose members include the National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association, Lafarge North America and Vulcan Materials.

“[Our] view is that the entire proposed regulation presents severe flaws regarding inaccurate cost projections and incomplete consideration of all the cost impacts that occur in real-world manufacturing and construction application,” adds ICPI Executive Director Charles McGrath.

Precast/Prestressed Concrete Institute President James Toscas offers perhaps the most spirited of challenges among his concrete industry group peers—expanding on the idea of existing PEL targets and OSHA’s tracking of bad actors who fail to comply with the law. “Implementation of more stringent PELs will not affect already-noncompliant workplaces, where workers will continue to be overexposed to silica. They will only affect compliant firms. If 30–50 percent of industry cannot comply with the current PEL, how is it feasible to comply with reductions of 50–75 percent in the new PELs,” he comments.

“How many lives could be saved and how many cases of silicosis prevented by more widespread compliance with the current PEL? Logic dictates that in a market-driven economy, to reduce the frequency of noncompliance you need to reduce the cost of compliance (or, alternatively, increase the cost of noncompliance). OSHA’s approach, with PELs set to the lower limits of reliable measurement, would increase both the frequency of noncompliance and the cost of compliance.”

The sharp observations on the proposed rule with which Toscas concludes his commentary mirror what many in the business community feel typifies federal agencies under the present administration: “impractical regulatory philosophy, flawed science, and a generally contemptuous attitude toward industry.”