Workers in the construction industry and other industrial occupations may be breathing a little easier in the very near future. Today the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) published a proposed rule to mitigate occupational exposure to respirable crystalline silica (silica dust). Silica dust is a dangerous substance well-known for causing lung disease, lung cancer and silicosis. The proposed rule is long overdue and worker safety and health advocates are cheering at its arrival, though caution that there is more work to be done.
Silica dust is currently a major concern for construction workers and workers in other industries. Respirable silica dust particles cannot be seen with the human eye, and it only takes a small amount of airborne silica dust to create a major health hazard.
Silica dust is created by cutting, grinding and drilling materials such as asphalt, brick, cement, concrete, drywall, grout, mortar, stone, sand, and tile. In other words, materials which can be found on almost every construction site across the United States.
Each year, thousands of working men and women die on the job. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4,609 workers in 2011 did not return home from a day’s work (2012 data will be available later this year). On April 28, we observe Workers Memorial Day to remember those who have suffered and died on the job and to renew our efforts for safe workplaces. This year, the struggle continues as members of Congress have jeopardized Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) funding with the so-called “sequester” budget cuts.
The resources that have been appropriated to OSHA are not only to enforce rules and regulations, but also to provide training for workers and returning military personnel, fund research and create new regulations. Sadly, OSHA’s tight budget inhibits its ability to carry out its mission.
The latest economic reports from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that more than 143 million workers are employed in the United States. Yet, OSHA’s budget for Fiscal Year 2012 was $583 million — a paltry 4 dollars per American worker to ensure safety and health on the job.
What’s even more shocking is OSHA’s inability to levy significant fines on employers who have broken the law. The Occupational Safety and Health Act limits the fines that OSHA can charge negligent employers to a maximum of $7,000 per safety violation deemed “serious,” even if the violations resulted in a worker death. The threshold for fines is in dire need of modernization.
It’s time for our country to fulfill the promise of safe jobs for all and to hold employers accountable for their actions.