Exposure to crystalline silica has been known to be a problem since the pyramids were built. In fact, silicosis is one of the oldest known occupational diseases. Francis Perkins, who served as the U.S. Secretary of Labor in the Roosevelt administration and after whom the current Labor Department headquarters is named, convened a National Conference to Stop Silicosis in 1938.

The new crystalline silica rule from OSHA covering workers in general industry, maritime and construction aims to bring worker protections into the 21st century. OSHA’s proposed rulemaking includes two separate standards – one for general industry and maritime employment, and one for construction. The proposed standards seek to lower worker exposure to crystalline silica, which kills hundreds of workers and sickens thousands more each year. After publication of the proposal, the public will have 90 days to submit written comments, followed by public hearings.

“Exposure to silica can be deadly, and limiting that exposure is essential,” said Dr. David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health. “Every year, exposed workers not only lose their ability to work, but also to breathe. This proposal is expected to prevent thousands of deaths from silicosis – an incurable and progressive disease – as well as lung cancer, other respiratory diseases and kidney disease. We’re looking forward to public comment on the proposal.”

Once the full effects of the rule are realized, OSHA estimates that it will result in saving nearly 700 lives per year and prevent 1,600 new cases of silicosis annually. More than 2 million workers each year are exposed to silica.

The agency currently enforces 40-year-old permissible exposure limits (PELs) for crystalline silica in general industry, construction and shipyards that are outdated, inconsistent between industries and do not adequately protect worker health.