White House Must Act Now to Protect Workers’ Lives and Health

“How can you put a price tag before the safety of U.S. workers?” ~ Leonard Serafin, former railroad worker who suffers from occupational silicosis

Two years ago today, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued a proposal to protect workers against the devastating illnesses associated with silica dust.  Yet, these safety standards remain inexplicably mired in review at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), an executive branch agency. Meanwhile 1.7 million U.S. workers from all walks of life are at risk.  Silica causes silicosis, multiple cancers, lung disease, and a host of other life-threatening conditions.

Outdated and dangerous silica standards ignore scientific research proving that regular exposure at still permissible limits causes serious health issues. Workers face toxic exposure at twice the amount considered safe.  And almost half of employers do not even adhere to these appallingly inadequate standards.

Even the 90 days that the OMB is allowed to review a new rule proposal is far too long given the extent to which workers are suffering.  Yet, not only has OMB failed to expedite this crucial process, it has actually failed to act for two years while hundreds of lives have been lost to silicosis from preventable exposure and thousands have been made sick. The OMB and the administration must prioritize workers’ health and act immediately to implement this basic rule that would protect workers’ lives. While it is only one step in a broader fight for worker protection, the advancement of reasonable controls on silica is an important measure to ensure the safety of millions.

We have known about the dangers of silica for centuries. Here in the US, the labor department released a film called “Stop Silicosis” back in the 1930s in the wake of the tragic Hawk’s Nest Tunnel disaster where hundreds of workers died of silicosis. There have been efforts for decades to better protect workers from silica exposure but industry lobbyists, as expected, have fought back viciously. Their arguments that life-saving regulations “kill jobs” in fact kill people.   

The delay on the silica rule and the unconscionable industry opposition based on a costs analysis signals profoundly misplaced priorities and a failure to value human life. In a culture that prioritizes profits over people, our workforce risks facing egregious human rights violations. It is painfully clear that industry power is blocking efforts to protect workers at a policy level. To effectively confront the power imbalance driving many of the problems facing workers today, we must come together to further build worker power and publicize, criticize, mobilize, and organize for change.

 Few expect that ‘just doing their job’ will irrevocably harm their health or even threaten their life – yet when industries and politicians quibble over regulation ‘price-tags’, they inherently assume that workers’ health, safety and lives are dispensable when profits are at stake. We must insist on the human right to safe and healthy working conditions for all to ensure that no one is considered expendable. 

To learn more about the silica fight and to take action: read  the Huffington Post piece by AFL-CIO’s Richard Trumpka and the commentary from National COSH’s Tom O’Connor in The Charleston Gazette;  and visit the Center for Effective Government’s webpage on protecting workers from silica. You can also follow the issue on twitter at #silica.