The Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced Friday a new rule to protect workers from illnesses caused by exposure to respirable crystalline silica. The proposal will prevent up to 700 deaths and 1,600 cases of silicosis annually, the agency says.

“Exposure to silica can be deadly, and limiting that exposure is essential,” said David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, in announcing the draft rule. “Every year, exposed workers not only lose their ability to work, but also to breathe.”

“Exposure to silica can be deadly, and limiting that exposure is essential.”

— David Michaels

Overexposure to silica dust causes silicosis, an irreversible and disabling lung disease, and is also associated with lung cancer, chronic renal disease and autoimmune disorders. There are no cures for silica-related diseases, but they can be prevented by controlling silica dust exposures in the work environment.

An estimated 2.2 million workers in the U.S. are at risk, including those in the construction trades involved in jackhammering, cutting or grinding stone, concrete, bricks and masonry. Workers employed in foundries, glass manufacturing, brick-making facilities and at hydraulic fracking sites can also be exposed to respirable silica.

“We strongly support OSHA’s effort to improve protections for workers who are exposed to silica,” said Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, in a statement. “The proposal marks an important step in addressing a serious health hazard for workers,” he added.

The silica proposal has been long awaited. Current standards were set four decades ago based on research from the 1960s and earlier, and according to the New York Times, the new protections were two-and-a-half years overdue. The public will have 90 days to comment on the proposal with public hearings to follow.

“The public comment period and hearings will allow health experts, affected workers and businesses to share information and expertise with OSHA about silica exposure and controls,” noted Linda Delp, chair of APHA’s Occupational Health and Safety Section. “We welcome the opportunity to participate in the rulemaking process to bring health protections to silica-exposed workers.”