Tom Perez

U.S. Secretary of Labor Tom Perez announces new protections for U.S. workers from respirable crystalline silica during an event Thursday in Maryland. Photo by APHA

U.S. workers won protections from respirable crystalline silica thanks to a new rule announced yesterday by the U.S Department of Labor.

APHA, whose members have been engaged in efforts to reduce illness and death from silica exposure for nearly 50 years, applauded the announcement.

“APHA has long championed measures to reduce the significant toll silica takes on our workforce every day,” said APHA Executive Director Georges C. Benjamin, MD, in a news release. “We know that silicosis alone kills 200 workers and harms 7,300 more each year. This is a life-saving public health victory, and we thank the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for making it happen.”

Roughly 2.2 million Americans work in jobs that expose them to silica, a carcinogen that leads to harmful and often deadly lung diseases, chronic renal diseases and autoimmune disorders. The rule sets a new limit of 50 micrograms of respirable crystalline silica per cubic meter of air — along with other measures to control and protect against silica — improving safety in a broad range of workplaces, including construction, foundries, glass manufacturing, brick-making facilities and at hydraulic fracking sites.

“This is enormously good news for public health,” said APHA Occupational Health and Safety Section member Rosemary Sokas, MD, MOH, who testified at public hearings before the rule’s passage and helped lead the Section’s advocacy efforts.

“Although deaths from acute silicosis have declined since the 1930s, they unfortunately occur to this day, as do illness and death from chronic silicosis, silicotuberculosis, lung cancer and other diseases we have only recently confirmed to be caused by exposure,” Sokas said. “The OSHA silica standard, if adequately enforced, should also be a force for reducing health disparities, since occupational silica exposure disproportionately impacts low income, African American and Latino workers.”