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Labor regulators aim to finish difficult dust rule

Dust in the workplace — affecting the construction, mining and oil and gas industries — has proven a tough issue to regulate, with a battle over updating federal standards dragging on more than 40 years and vexing eight presidential administrations.

But a final rule could come as soon as February, one that would cut the allowable exposure of crystalline silica, the most common type of industrial sand manufactured into a variety of products that can then be sawed, crushed or blown into airborne dust.

The rule is not without controversy. Construction companies argue that the change could hurt jobs in an industry that already uses ventilation systems, vacuums, water sprayers, protective equipment and specialized hand tools to minimize dust at job sites.

Even as the standards are being revised, demand for silica may be declining in places like Western Pennsylvania as the oil and gas industry slumps. Silica is used heavily on natural gas drilling sites in the Marcellus Shale region and other shale plays. Drillers have been receiving massive quantities of sand by rail cars and trucks; mixing it with water and chemicals on site; and shooting large volumes of the mixture underground to pry open shale rock and release trapped gas.

The government has classified crystalline silica as a human lung carcinogen that can cause silicosis, a pulmonary disease that can be fatal.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has proposed lowering the dust standard to 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air, down from the current standard of 100 micrograms per cubic meter of air for general industry and 250 micrograms for construction sites and shipyards. The existing dust limits are based on health studies from the early 1970s.

The far-reaching dust rule has been stymied over the years for political and technical reasons.

OSHA figures dust is an issue in more than 30 major industries and operations, ranging from foundries to dental laboratories to glass-making to roadwork. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which conducted the initial health study in 1974 and has repeatedly pressed for a standard since, estimates 1.7 million workers are exposed to breathable silica.

Entering the final year of President Barack Obama’s term in office, OSHA has estimated a final rule could come in February, according to its updated regulatory agenda. The agenda also shows the Mine Safety and Health Administration will seek to apply OSHA’s proposed standard to airborne silica in mines.

OSHA estimated the costs of the rule at $664 million a year, with benefits of $2.8 billion to $4.7 billion annually. It also estimates the rules will prevent nearly 700 deaths and more than 1,600 cases of silicosis each year.

Related: Is the silica sand boom over?

But representatives of the U.S. construction industry are calling it the most expensive workplace safety rule it’s ever faced and warned OSHA in comments that it can’t comply.

Dropping the standard from 250 to 50 micrograms is an unrealistic change, said Bradford Hammock, an attorney for Reston, Va., law firm Jackson Lewis P.C. who represents the Construction Industry Safety Coalition.

The coalition of 25 construction trade organizations, said companies would pay a total of $4.9 billion a year, including $1 billion a year in higher prices for materials as upstream manufacturers pass on their own costs of complying with the rule at their plants.

Further, it told OSHA that demand for construction work would decline with higher prices, leading to nearly 53,000 jobs nationwide. In Pennsylvania, the workforce would shrink nearly 1 percent, the group said.

While the new federal rule wouldn’t require producers of sand to alter the composition or mining of their product, rising costs for manufacturers and construction companies could portend a drop in demand, said Mark Ellis, president of the National Industrial Sand Association, which represents North American silica producers.

Meanwhile, sand producers have been battered as oil and gas companies have scaled back drilling in the last year in response to plummeting commodity prices. Since August 2014, shares of U.S. Silica Holdings, a major supplier of hydraulic fracturing sand based in Frederick, Md., have tumbled 73 percent and sit around $20 this week. Emerging Energy Services, a sand supplier based in Texas, has seen shares nosedive 96 percent and hover around $6.

Mr. Ellis said the problem isn’t that the 100-microgram standard is too high — it’s that companies aren’t following it. Federal regulators should maintain the current standard, he said, but give it teeth by requiring employers to monitor dust levels and provide chest x-rays every couple years to detect early signs of silicosis.

These are measures that sand producers, despite mining the very substance under regulation, have used to consistently met the 100-microgram standard, Mr. Ellis said.

“In doing those kinds of programs, we have essentially eliminated cases of silicosis in our workforce,” Mr. Ellis said. “Silocosis is 100 percent preventable disease. What it takes is a management commitment to solve the problem.”

There is currently no requirement to routinely gather samples and survey employee’s health.

And while the Mine Safety and Health Administration performs routine inspections of surface and underground mines and cites violations of the dust standard, OSHA cannot logistically visit all workplaces. OSHA inspectors must prioritize visits on bad actors, worker complaints and other factors.

(c)2015 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

This article was written by Daniel Moore from Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.