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Dangerous Dust: Government Pushes to Improve Workplace Safety

Without proper engineering controls, workers can be exposed to harmful levels of respirable crystalline silica that can cause silicosis, lung cancer, and other lung and kidney diseases. OSHA

Workers who breathe in silica dust have twice the normal risk of lung cancer and often develop other lung-related diseases such as asthma. Yet the rules for working with this dust — generated by mining, fracking, brickwork, floor work and other types of industry — haven’t been updated since the early 1970s.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is proposing new limits that would cut in half the amount of silica dust that workers are exposed to. But industry is opposed, saying the safety measures will cost them too much.

It seems like a no-brainer to Sean Barrett, who lost his job last year when he developed dust-related asthma, as well as to government agencies that wrapped up three weeks of hearings into proposed new rules on Friday.

Barrett, 41, says it’s far too easy for workers, and their employers, to just ignore basic safety measures, even as they are coated in dust. “It sounds ridiculous to say, but after a while you don’t notice it,” he told NBC News. “You have the dust in your mouth so often that you don’t really pay attention to it.”

Barrett sure noticed it when he collapsed last June while on the job installing terrazzo floors — those shiny, composite floors popular in airports and malls. “I found myself slouched over my machine and the guys on my crew all came over to make sure I was OK. I went outside to get some fresh air, and the next thing I knew, I was sprawled across a stack of pallets,” Barrett, who lives in Marlborough, Mass., said in testimony during the hearings.

He has been diagnosed with asthma caused by silica dust, and now works in an office-based job, earning half what he earned before.

Sean Barrett
Sean Barrett, 41, testifies about the health problems he's had from silica dust. Bill Burke/PageOne

OSHA says 2.2 million U.S. workers are exposed to silica dust that they could breathe in while working, most of them in the construction industry. Current limits are 40 years old and don’t reflect decades of research showing that breathing in silica more than doubles the risk of lung cancer, and raises the risk of asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, tuberculosis and even stomach cancer and kidney disease.

Smokers who also breathe in the dust for 30 years, an average career, have 42 times the risk of lung cancer compared to even light smokers who aren't exposed to silica.

The main cause of many of the problems is silicosis, an incurable and irreversible condition caused when little bits of silica wedge into the lung. The body grows scar tissue over each microscopic piece, making the lungs less flexible and less able to provide oxygen to the blood. Victims become short of breath and they are then vulnerable to other conditions, including cancer and infectious disease.

“This debilitating and often fatal lung disease persists worldwide despite long-standing knowledge of its cause and methods for controlling it,” said Kathleen Rest, former acting director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

"You have the dust in your mouth so often that you don’t really pay attention to it."

OSHA says its proposed rule, which would cut in half the allowed amount of silica in the air from 100 micrograms per square meter to 50 micrograms, would only cost the average workplace $1,242 a year to implement. “OSHA estimates that the proposed rule will save nearly 700 lives and prevent 1,600 new cases of silicosis per year once the full effects of the rule are realized,” it says.

The fixes are easy, OSHA and unions representing the workers say. They include using vacuums to pull out air in places where dust rises, designing saws and cutters to keep a flow of water going to prevent dust form ever being kicked up and better use of respirators.

Many in the industry disagree, saying they already do enough to protect workers, or saying the controls are not nearly as simple as OSHA claims.

“Dust control, especially at the low levels of exposure OSHA is recommending, is challenging and complex,” Kirt Ballard of Kit’s Foundry in Shelley, Ind., testified.

“OSHA’s proposal is not technologically or economically feasible,” Ballard said. “Foundries could conceivably go out of business by spending millions of dollars implementing various types of engineering controls.”

The Brick Industry Association wants to be exempted, also, saying its workers don’t develop silicosis often and saying OSHA has underestimated the costs.

Not all industry opposes the new standards. The National Industrial Sand Association says its members already follow similar practices. It says most companies that produce silica dust fail to comply with OSHA's current recommendations.

"Unimin has found that the costs of conducting exposure monitoring and medical surveillance to be quite minimal," Andrew O'Brien, vice president for safety and health at mineral producer Unimin testified.

Allen Schultz, a retired foundry worker and United Steelworkers union member from Waukesha, Wis., says he saw employers try to bypass even the 40-year-old standards. “One time the company hired an outside company of furnace repair experts to teach our workers how to do a better job of removal and rebuild. They had their people in white plastic airtight suits, gloves and booties with forced, filtered clean air into their helmets,” Schultz said in written testimony.

“They built an airtight overpressure clear plastic room where they would put their outfits on and off. They were working next to our workers who were white with dust everywhere from the jackhammers and the tamping machinery and, maybe, a damp sweaty respirator hanging around their necks. They weren't hired back again. I don't think the company liked our guys seeing all the safety precautions their people had to take.”

And the lack of control took its toll, Schultz said. “It became apparent that many of our senior guys were suffering breathing problems. Many were dying around the time of their 25 years either just before or after they retired,” Schultz testified.

“You get punished for being sick."

Barrett, the Massachusetts terrazzo worker, said his employers often took short-cuts. “All these machines come with safety equipment on them and the problem is the companies don’t maintain them,” he said. “They say, ‘just take the filters out and smack them.'” That just sends the dust into the air, he said.

Employers, said Barrett, expected workers to get on with their jobs without complaint. Silica dust is used in installing terrazzo floors, and it kicks up during installation as well as when the floors are polished. “These companies, they know exactly what’s going on,” he said.

And now, Barrett says he has been unable to get work installing floors since his asthma was diagnosed. “You get punished for being sick,” he said.

Like many workers in the industry, Barrett worked on a contract basis, getting his health insurance and pension coverage from his union, the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers, which backs the new standards. But employers would be on the hook for worker’s compensation for someone made sick by a workplace exposure.

“All these companies loved me. I was always on the overtime jobs,” Barrett said. “As soon as they found out I was sick they wouldn’t return my phone calls.” His income plummeted from $100,000 a year to zero.

“I had to go to bankruptcy on my house. I had to hide my truck so they wouldn’t repossess it,” Barrett said. He’s now doing estimates for a rival company for $60,000 a year.

While Barrett still only has 70 percent of his optimal breathing capacity, he’d like to return to terrazzo work, both for the money and for the pride he took in his craftsmanship. And he’d like to see the new standards in place to protect younger workers. “These young kids — they don’t real what they doing to themselves,” he said. “They need to make it mandatory.”

OSHA is proposing giving industry two years to meet the new regulations if they do take effect.