Pipeline Construction Impacted By OSHA Proposal on Crystalline Silica

October 2013, Vol. 68 No. 10

Oil and gas operations are near the top of the list of sectors which will be affected if the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA) proposed new workplace standard on crystalline silica becomes final.

The agency lists 13 sectors which have the biggest exposure to crystalline silica, which is a primary cause of silicosis, a fatal lung disease, and also lung cancer. Of the 13 sectors, rock and sand blasting associated with building pipelines and digging wells has the fourth highest number of workers exposed to crystalline silica above the current permissible exposure (PEL) limit of 100 micrograms.

The proposed rule would replace that 40-year-old PEL with one set at 50 micrograms and an action level of 25 micrograms. The action level is the standard’s trigger for increased industrial hygiene monitoring and initiation of worker medical surveillance.

Groups such as the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) say no new standard is needed because there was a 93 percent reduction in silicosis mortality from 1968 to 2002, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Given the costs of compliance that all companies would face, Amanda Wood, director, Labor and Employment Policy, NAM, says the OSHA ought to focus on companies violating the current standard.

The costs for all companies subject to the new standard, even those with admirably low exposure limits, might be substantial, given the exposure monitoring, medical monitoring and training costs. The OSHA estimates those to be $630 million (total, for all sectors) on an annual, recurring basis. Wood says the industry estimate is $5 billion. That difference may be because OSHA says the provisions of the proposed rule "are similar to industry consensus standards that many responsible employers have been using for years, and the technology to better protect workers is already widely available."

Wood and many others are pouring over the 757-page proposed rule in order to come up with more specific objections. The AFL-CIO has been pushing hard for a new standard for years. The OSHA has considered one for more than a decade, but has never moved forward, in part because of industry opposition and because of a deregulatory bent among Republicans and some Democrats.