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OSHA Enacts Long-Awaited Safety Rule Protecting Workers from Silica Exposure

After over two years of sitting stalled in review, draft regulations protecting workers from exposure to silica dust were passed recently by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Denver workers’ compensation attorney Jordan Levine has followed the development of these new rules with interest, knowing how damaging silica dust exposure can be. Silica dust is a common air pollutant at construction sites, shipyards, and other heavy machinery sites. When inhaled, silica dust lodges in the lungs, where it can cause a number of serious or even fatal occupational diseases.

The new OSHA regulation cuts permissible silica exposure levels from 250 micrograms per cubic meter of air to 50 micrograms – a decrease of 80 percent. Although many industries argue that the costs are prohibitive, unions and many healthcare professionals back the regulation, noting that it offers significant protection to the two million U.S. workers exposed to silica dust each year. Businesses will be required to measure periodically for silica, test workers’ lung functions at least once every three years, and limit total silica exposure for each worker to 30 days or less per year.

The quest for tougher standards protecting workers against silica dust exposure began in the 1970s when research into occupational diseases clarified the link between silica exposure and a number of lung diseases. Although several regulations have been proposed since then, and some have been put into effect, the number of deaths and serious illnesses due to silica exposure has not decreased dramatically, according to OSHA.

The new regulation seeks to change that. By implementing stronger standards protecting workers from silica dust, OSHA says, the agency’s regulation will prevent nearly 700 deaths and 1,600 new cases of silicosis each year.

The rule will affect primarily construction businesses, according to OSHA. The agency estimates that 90 percent of businesses required to follow the new rule are in the construction industry. OSHA also estimates that compliance with the new rules will cost each affected company an average of $1,242 – a number that the agency argues is offset by the savings in medical bills and lost wages due to untimely death, which is estimated to be in excess of $4 billion.

Silica particles are no more than one-hundredth the size of a grain of sand, but they can cause major lung damage. Silicosis, chronic pneumonia, and various types of lung cancer are commonly associated with silica exposure. Silica may be used as part of many construction processes, or it may be released during sawing or drilling. Workers in hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” industries may suffer the greatest exposure; one study found that fracking workers were exposed, on average, to up to ten times the levels of silica allowed under the OSHA’s old rules.

If you have been exposed to silica dust while on the job and are now suffering the symptoms of silicosis, mesothelioma, or another injury or disease that could be linked to your silica exposure, don’t wait: contact an experienced Denver workers’ compensation lawyer at Levine Law. An attorney can help you establish exactly how your injury or illness was caused to seek the compensation you need.

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