NAHB Attacks OSHA’s New Silica Rules

NAHB joins litany of building industry players “howling” about silica regulation.

The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) has urged Congress to take action to keep the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) new silica standards from taking effect.

Testifying before the House Education and Workforce Committee’s Subcommittee on Workforce Protections on April 19, NAHB Chairman Ed Brady, a home builder and developer from Bloomington, Ill., said, “Our members are deeply committed to taking meaningful action to provide a safe work and construction environment, including reducing exposure to silica. However, we believe the new rule will not only fail to achieve these aims, but it will also do great harm to businesses, consumers and the economy.”

However, the construction industry’s “meaningful action to provide a safe work and construction environment” isn’t enough to keep workers safe, particularly considering silica is found in so many materials on construction sites, including concrete, brick, rocks, stone, sand, and clay. The dust containing silica is created when these materials are cut, ground, drilled or otherwise disturbed.

Cutting Countertops Silica Hazard

OSHA estimates about 2 million construction workers in more than 600,000 workplaces are exposed to silica dust. The exposure level for more than 40 percent of those workers is greater than that provided by the new rule, according to the Labor Department.

If the silica particles in this dust are small enough, they can be breathed deep into the lungs and, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “can cause silicosis, which damages your lungs and makes it hard to breathe, increases your risk of lung infections, and may lead to heart failure. Silica may also cause cancer.”

The Center also reports: “Silicosis can be prevented but not cured.”

At the press conference announcing the new rules, Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez said it is to be expected that some employer groups will complain loudly about the revision of the antiquated 1971 Silica rules —what Perez, quoting President Franklin Roosevelt, called “calamity howlers.” And the groups may try to stop or challenge the rule through federal court petitions for review and in Congress, Perez said, which is exactly what NAHB is doing.

This is all about two things,” emphasizes Ron Jones, founder of Green Builder Media and the only person ever to have served on the Boards of Directors for NAHB and USGBC. “One, industry will always value profits over people even though they start out by paying lip service to safety concerns. Two, I know of no other organization that is more universally opposed to regulation than the home builders.  As much as anything, this battle is being waged as part of an ongoing ideological war against mandates of any kind.”

Brady’s testimony included claims that regulation is technologically impracticable, economically infeasible, will raise the cost of housing, and is unworkable in terms of requiring medical surveillance of construction industry workers.

According to OSHA and the Department of Labor, there will be costs involved in protecting workers but that the phase-in of the program (details here) will give companies ample time to adjust.

The Associated General Contractors of America share NAHB’s sentiments. Brian Turmail, its spokesperson, spoke on NPR’s Morning Edition March 24, saying that if a dust-producing part of a construction site has to be cordoned off and put off-limits to all workers except those in protective gear, “you would delay or lengthen the time it takes to complete projects. And certainly the cost of building any type of construction project — because virtually every type of construction project is going to create dust — will go up significantly.” (You can listen to the NPR interview here.)

The OSHA website suggests that mitigating silica dust typically means using vacuums, wetting down surfaces and having workers wear respirators.

But most important, regardless of cost or hassle, it simply has to happen.

“This rule will save lives,” said Perez in a press release. “It will enable workers to earn a living without sacrificing their health. It builds upon decades of research and a lengthy stakeholder engagement process–including the consideration of thousands of public comments–to finally give workers the kind of protection they deserve.”

Some large commercial construction companies are already backing the rule, including Turner Construction Co. Chris Jahrling, vice president of Turner Federal Services, spoke at a press conference on the silica rule after Perez and said the company wants its workers to have “long healthy retirements. … We look forward to working with the respiratory silica standard.”

Mike Collignon, director of the Green Builder Coalition, says it’s safe to assume that many in the building industry are probably against the new rules since most industries are going to be against anything that raises costs.

Collignon points out that commercial construction firms, such as Turner Construction, have this all figured out. “They are better funded and have more to lose in a lawsuit, not to mention are more scrutinized by OSHA. On the other end of the spectrum are small builders, who usually don’t have the available capital to invest in all the necessary safety equipment, pay for their workers’ annual chest x-rays, etc. Without this rule, things will remain as they are: Workers take the gamble that they don’t suffer a serious physical ailment, and employers hope they don’t get sued for obvious workplace  injuries.”

As reported by Gretchen Goldman, lead analyst for the Center for Science and Democracy, in her article “Finally, a Silica Rule: A Story of Industry Interference and Regulatory Delay,” the new rule should be celebrated: “It has now caught up to science and when fully implemented, it will save more than 600 lives per year and have a net benefit of $7.7 billion annually. But we also need to take a deeper look at why something that made so much sense has taken so long to be implemented and why it’s still under attack.”

According to Goldman, scientists have known for decades about the health effects of silica dust exposure. In fact, as long ago as the 1930s, the construction industry was conducting studies on exposure of workers to silica dust and the incidence of silicosis. “In an infamous 1931 Gauley Bridge tunnel incident, hundreds of workers died of silicosis and it all could have been avoided if a ‘wet drilling’ technique was used to keep the dust down. But doing so slowed the process, so the construction company only used it when inspectors were present,” Goldman writes.

While the overwhelming evidence of silica dust harm (and the know-how to fix it) has existed for decades, industries who stand to lose from silica dust regulation have blocked regulations. “The chemical industry has fought OSHA for decades, hiring firms to produce studies that showed no link between silica exposure and silicosis, even as thousands of exposed workers developed silicosis and died,” Goldman notes. (For more history and details of the decades-long fight against silica regulation, read Goldman’s blog on the Union of Concerned Scientists website here.)

“Unfortunately, proponents may not have time to relax,” warns Goldman. “Members of Congress at today’s hearing were questioning the science upon which  the rule is based. Despite decades’ worth of science, politics continue. But for now, the science finally prevails.”

As was learned in the asbestos path from ignorance to compliance–you can’t put a cost on human health. And if you do, you will inevitably become mistrusted, then a scourge, and, finally, sued.