On silica, US does what the UK says can’t be done

The US government has gone where the UK had refused to go, introducing new rules to sharply reduce workplace exposures to silica. The 24 March 2016 move by the US Labor Department means the US will halve the occupational exposure standard from the level it currently shares with the UK, 0.1mg/m3, to 0.05mg/m3.

The potentially deadly mineral is encountered in a wide range of jobs from construction, to mining, ceramics, stone masonry, quarrying, brickmaking and fracking. The change will be phased in from June this year, with construction given one year’s grace to meet the requirements and other industries longer.

US officials estimate that the new silica standard, when fully in effect, will save hundreds of lives a year. Exposure to silica is linked to lung cancer, the often fatal lung-scarring condition silicosis and other respiratory, kidney and auto-immune diseases.

US labor secretary Thomas E Perez said he thought that many companies would easily adapt to the new standard because inexpensive equipment is available to control and trap the release of silica dust. US regulators have also argued that a tighter standard will drive improvements in monitoring and control technologies.

“This is no different than the story of asbestos,” the labor secretary said, commenting on decades of delays in introducing the standard. “After 40 years, the political will has finally caught up with the science.”

David Michaels, head of the US government safety regulator OSHA, said: “Every year, many exposed workers not only lose their ability to work, but also to breathe. Today, we are taking action to bring worker protections into the 21st century in ways that are feasible and economical for employers to implement.”

The new standard was welcomed by unions including the national union federation AFL-CIO, the National Coalition on Occupational Safety and Health, the American Public Health Association, the National Employment Law Project (NELP) and Public Citizen.

AFL-CIO president Rich Trumka said: “We applaud the Obama administration for issuing these lifesaving measures,” adding: “The labor movement has fought for these standards for decades. We will continue to fight to defend these rules from the certain industry attacks that will come, so that workers are finally protected from this deadly dust.”

Unions and workplace health campaigners in the UK have pressed the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to match the US standard, which was finalised pending official ratification in August 2013.

HSE has argued the lower level now being introduced in the US is neither achievable nor practically measurable, issues raised in extensive US government hearings on the draft standard and dismissed comprehensively over two years ago.

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