For 2014, OSHA Activity Increases; Infrastructure Funding Proposals In Development

By Stephen Barlas, Washington Editor | February 2014, Vol. 69 No. 2

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has been one of the sleepiest federal regulatory agencies for the past decade, under both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

But it is starting to show signs of waking up. Rulemakings on crystalline silica and injury and illness reporting are finally moving forward in 2014. They could be, for the underground construction industry, one of the more notable federal policy developments in this new year.

In Congress, there are also a couple of proposals related to infrastructure construction which are percolating. There is, however, some reason for optimism since the fiscal year 2014 budget agreed to by both Democrats and Republicans contains a $22 billion pot of money to be used by the Obama administration to fund investments in education and infrastructure, which it has not been able to do since the 2009 economic stimulus bill.

OSHA's attempts to lower the permissible exposure limit (PEL) for crystalline silica have sputtered for years. The agency has commissioned studies, held hearings and done a lot of related work in the background. But it could never bring itself to inaugurate a rulemaking.

It finally issued a proposed rule last September which would drop the PEL for quartz (the most common form of crystalline silica) in general industry from 100 micrograms per cubic meter of air (μg/m 3) as an eight-hour time-weighted average to 50 μg/m. That lower level would also apply to two other forms of crystalline silica: cristobalite and tridymite. OSHA also proposed other ancillary provisions for employee protection such as preferred methods for controlling exposure, respiratory protection, medical surveillance, hazard communication and recordkeeping. OSHA is proposing two separate regulatory texts – one for general industry and maritime, and the other for construction – in order to tailor requirements to the circumstances found in these sectors.