Why Worker Safety in the U.S. Faces Uncertainty

by Terry Bryant

The agency charged with protecting American workers was poised to score a major victory earlier this year. After decades of stagnation and legal battles, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) was finally ready to strengthen regulations that prevented exposure to silica and beryllium, moves that, by the agency’s own estimates, would collectively save nearly 800 lives every year.

It now appears as though that won’t be happening after all.

The agency, now under a new administration, has proposed changes to these rules, furthering the delay and endangering thousands of workers who are exposed to these substances. The reasons behind this delay are not clear, though safety advocates fear that they signal a change in course and a climate of dangerous safety practices in certain industries.

The Dangers of Silica and Beryllium

Crystalline silica is a mineral that, once airborne, can be inhaled and carry severe health risks for workers. According to OSHA, workers can be exposed to silica “when cutting, sawing, drilling, and crushing of concrete, brick, ceramic tiles, rock, and stone products.” Over 2.3 million workers in the United States – 90% of which are in construction – are potentially exposed to airborne silica. The agency estimated that their updated rule would save 700 workers’ lives every year.

Beryllium is a widely-used lightweight metal found in several products, including computers, golf clubs, and aircraft parts. Like silica, beryllium can be extremely dangerous when inhaled. Up to 62,000 workers (a conservative estimate) are potentially exposed to beryllium, and the updated proposal from OSHA was estimated to save 94 workers’ lives annually.

The Same Old Story for Workers

The dangers of silica and beryllium have been known for decades. For example, in 1938, the Department of Labor made a short movie about the dangers of silica in the workplace. While safety measures were passed regarding exposure to these substances, they have not been updated to reflect the dangers experts now know they pose.

A report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released in 2012 found that it takes OSHA an average of eight years to issue a new standard. That’s double the time it takes the Department of Transportation to issue rules, according to the Center for Public Integrity. OSHA first considered new rules on silica in the 1990’s, but a proposed final rule wasn’t issued until 2013. It wasn’t finalized until 2016, at which point industry groups filed a lawsuit to block it.

In other words, OSHA is notoriously slow at issuing safety standards, and the companies that use these materials have both powerful lobbies and significant legal resources to combat regulations. Where does that leave workers? The recent delay of these rules is not a good omen for workplace safety.

At Terry Bryant Accident & Injury Law, we are proud to stand up for workers who suffer workplace illness and injury. If you believe you have suffered from exposure to beryllium or silica, we offer free consultations to discuss your case with our team. To schedule a free consultation with Terry Bryant Accident & Injury Law, contact us today by filling out our online contact form or giving us a call at 1 (800) 444-5000 or locally in the Houston area at (713) 973-8888.