This post is dedicated to J.T. Knuckles. He died in 1998 at age 58 from silicosis.
I first met J.T. Knuckles in 1996. He spoke at a press event at which former Labor Secretary Robert Reich announced a national campaign to eliminate silicosis. “If it’s silica, it’s not just dust” was the campaign slogan. Today, 20 years after I met J.T. Knuckles, current Labor Secretary Tom Perez announced an OSHA standard designed to prevent silicosis.
I watched this morning a live stream of Secretary Perez’s announcement. He shared some of the long history of silica being recognized as a deadly health hazard, including in the 1930’s with the West Virginia Hawks Nest Tunnel disaster and Labor Secretary Francis Perkins’ National Silicosis Conference Committee report. In those days, the concern was silicosis and silico-tuberculosis. We now know that overexposure to respirable crystalline silica is also associated with lung cancer, non-malignant respiratory diseases, kidney disease and autoimmune disorders. Secretary Perez kicked off his remarks by saying: “I’m sorry it took so long.”
The key provisions of the new OSHA standard include requirements for employers to:
- Maintain workers’ exposures to respirable silica below 50 μg/m3 averaged over an 8-hour day;
- Develop an exposure control plan;
- Provide respirators to workers in certain jobs with especially high exposure to silica dust;
- Offer confidential medical examination (e.g., chest x-rays, pulmonary function tests) to workers who are exposed for more than 30 days to exposures above 25 μg/m3 averaged over an 8-hour day;
- Arrange for the employee to see a specialist in pulmonary disease or occupational medicine when the physician who conducted the initial medical examination makes that recommendation.
The standard also offers a list of feasible control measures for 18 specific construction tasks. Employers who use these control measures will be considered in compliance with the 50 μg/m3 permissible exposure limit.
When does the new standard take affect? The construction industry will be required within one year to comply with most provisions of the rule. Other industries will have two years to comply with it. Employers involved in hydraulic fracturing operations will have five years to implement certain engineering controls.
During OSHA’s public hearing on the proposed silica rule, which were held in 2014, some individuals argued against the proposal. They testified that the evidence was incomplete or inconclusive, and that there are too many uncertainties in the data to justify a regulation. OSHA wasn’t convinced by those arguments. In fact, at this morning’s event, Secretary Perez tipped his hat to NIOSH chief John Howard, saying: “the public policy is finally catching up with the science.”
OSHA chief David Michaels also spoke at this morning’s event and recalled his first day on the job at the agency. In his office, a draft rule on silica was “collecting dust, literally. It was sitting on a chair.” There had not been the political will or the resources dedicated to finalizing a rule. Dr. Michaels graciously thanked the OSHA career staff who developed the rule for making it happen.
OSHA estimates that once the silica rule takes full effect, it will save over 600 lives and prevent more than 900 new cases of silicosis each year. The agency estimates the annualized benefits of the rule will be $8.6 billion compared to annualized costs of $1 billion.
J.T. Knuckles was the first person I’d met with silicosis. He was one of a kind. JT told his story of the cruel way that silicosis affects your life (and your “manlihood” as JT would say.) He spoke in 1996 about it so the Labor Department would take steps to prevent others from suffering his fate. Today, they finally did so.