The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) estimated that a proposed rule designed to reduce exposure to crystalline silica among construction workers would cost the industry just over $500 million. An independent investigation into the financial ramifications of this proposed rule, however, revealed that potential costs could exceed $450 billion.
By the Numbers
The Construction Industry Safety Coalition (CISC), an organization that represents numerous trade associations, prepared a report in March 2015 that expressed concerns over OSHA’s radical underestimation of the rule’s probable cost. In the report, the CISC cites expenses related to record-keeping, equipment, materials, and labor as essential costs to enforce OSHA’s proposal.
In addition to accounting and estimation errors, industry impact assumptions also miss the mark, according to the CISC’s report. OSHA fails to take into account the job losses such a rule would cause as well as the possibility of closed businesses and other economic issues.
OSHA contends that exposure to crystalline silica on the job site results in preventable illnesses in construction workers and believes that the problem requires immediate intervention. While working with certain building materials, such as rock and brick, workers breathe in dust that contains small particles of silica. Long-term exposure has been linked to health conditions like lung cancer, kidney disease, and silicosis.
Silica is a mineral found in sand, rock, and other naturally-occurring materials, according to the American Lung Association. When people breathe in silica particles, scar tissue and excess fluid develop in the lungs, causing reduced respiratory function.
Organizations like the CISC do not discount the potentially damaging impact of silica on construction workers’ health. However, the large discrepancy in the estimated costs of OSHA’s new rule could put thousands of workers’ jobs in jeopardy and cripple the industry as a whole. The CISC maintains that OSHA’s fundamental misunderstanding of the industry could lead to the passing of an untenable rule. Additionally, OSHA’s lack of historical silica-related oversight concerns many industry leaders.
The CISC recognizes the need for new policies and practices for handling materials that contain silica. However, the report’s authors suggest that the development of a new silica standard requires an in-depth understanding of the industry’s economic condition as well as an eye toward the feasibility of making sweeping, industry-wide changes to current practices.
Associated Builders and Contractors, a trade association that boasts more than 20,000 members, joins the CISC in expressing reservations. George Burr, the organization’s Vice President of Government Affairs, said in a statement, “OSHA still has not explained how a lowered [permissible exposure limit for silica] will be effective at reducing the number of silica-related illnesses, particularly when the agency has admitted its failure to properly enforce the existing standard.”
Industry leaders ask OSHA to withdraw its proposal until a more feasible plan is developed.
A Common Problem
Controversy over the release of silica during construction extends beyond the construction industry. A 2015 lawsuit against an insurance agency alleged that inappropriate dust barriers led to significant property damage while contractors worked on a government building.
The CISC submitted its report to OSHA and currently awaits a response. Meanwhile, numerous construction organizations and employers continue to debate the legitimacy of OSHA’s proposal.