In a move that could save an estimated 600 lives each year, U.S. regulators on Thursday announced they have finalized new rules on the amount of silica workers can be exposed to during an eight-hour shift. It's the first change to the rules since 1971.
The U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) touts that the new rules have the potential to save lives, and can prevent more than 900 new cases of silicosis, a lung disease that's caused by inhaling silica particles. Along with silicosis, exposure to silica crystals can also induce kidney disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
An estimated 2.3 million Americans work job in which they could be exposed to silica crystals, according to OSHA. The rules currently in place, and set to be scrapped, didn't adequately protect those 2.3 million men and women because the previous limits on exposure were outdated, according to OSHA's David Michael, assistant secretary of Labor.
"Limiting exposure to silica dust is essential," Michael 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."
Now the limit for the amount of silica particles in the air at work sites has been cut to no more than 50 micrograms in every cubic meter of air per eight-hour shift. Employers will have to mitigate the risk of exposure by employing engineering control, such as ventilation and provide the proper respiratory equipment.
Employers will also have to tighten access to high risk areas and provide training to employees who have to work around silica dust. They'll also have to cover medical exams for employees that have been exposed to high amounts of crystalline silica.
The new rules were penned as pair of standards. One standard is for construction, which employers have up until June 23, 2017 to comply. The other is for general labor and maritime, which gives businesses up until June 23, 2018.
"No one should have to shorten his or her life to make a living," said U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez. "Everyone who leaves for work in the morning should come home safe and sound."