After months of negotiations with the OHSA, the National Roofing Contractors Association has thrown in the towel over getting additional changes to the coming silica rule, which it fears will increase fall hazards and add significant compliance costs. At the same time, OSHA fines are set to jump as much as 80% in August.
OSHA’s silica rule, which went into effect in June and will be enforced next June, puts a limit of 50 micrograms of respirable crystalline silica per cubic meter of air and an “action level” of 25 micrograms per cubic meter averaged over an 8-hour shift. Previously, OSHA allowed 250 micrograms per cubic meter. To meet these levels, new engineering controls will be necessary and roofers will likely be required to use wet cutting methods and dust masks — even if exposure is minimal, Good said.
“Despite some improvements in the final rule, NRCA continues to be concerned compliance with the regulation may not always be technologically feasible and will cause much uncertainty for employers,” wrote Bill Good, NRCA’s CEO in March when the organization still hoped it could lobby for changes.
But in June, NRCA had to accept that the rule was going forward without the additional changes it had requested. It is now focused on helping it’s members comply with the rule. In a blog, a clearly irritated Good called the rule the “legacy” of OSHA head David Michaels and wrote candidly about “how frustrating the process the process can be.”
“We learned again that despite receiving opposing comments, OSHA usually gets its way,” he wrote. “The final rule is 1,772 pages, and most of it is a legal world salad, the main purpose of which is to scare off potential litigants. We learned again, facts don’t matter much to regulatory folks.
As an example, Good said OSHA “imagines” the new rule will save 600 lives annually, even though the CDC says only 111 people died from silicosis in 2013. Additionally, OSHA estimated the cost of compliance will be around $600 per company. But NRCA estimates the time required for training alone will cost $600 for most contractors.
He was most concerned about worker safety. “Under the new rule, workers in many cases will have to use wet saws on the rooftop, introducing new hazards such as slipping on wet surfaces and tripping on hoses,” he wrote.
While Good and NRCA lament the new rule, other organizations are praising it for protecting workers’ health. The American Public Health Association has been working to reduce silica-exposure-related deaths for more than 50 years and said the new rule protects an estimated 2.2 million U.S. workers, many of them poor.
“This is enormously good news for public health,” said APHA Occupational Health and Safety Section member, Rosemary Sokas. “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.”
But it’s that “if” that Good is most skeptical about. “Sadly, we know what will happen in the real world,” he wrote. “Professional contractors will try hard to comply and will be cited for minor infractions. Unprofessional contractors will do nothing — or hire subcontract labor that will do nothing — and will, for the most part, go undetected.
“The real lesson is we’ll spend an awful lot of time, money and energy with little progress toward improving worker health. But Michaels will have his legacy.”