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Safety Groups to Obama: Save Silica Rule- and Say “No” to Harmful Budget Cuts

The U.S. Congress is attacking the safety of American workers- and workers are fighting back.

Budget bills approved earlier this year by the U.S. House and Senate appropriations committees would severely cut funding for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Mine Health and Safety Administration (MSHA).  

The legislation, sent by Republican-controlled committees to the full Congress, also contains “poison pills” that will make it harder for both agencies to do their jobs. OSHA, for example, would be blocked from issuing a new rule with tighter limits on exposure to silica dust without further time-consuming and costly studies- even though this issue has already been studied for decades.

National COSH, partnering with Public Citizen, has circulated a letter to President Obama calling on him to veto these budget cuts and attacks on stronger safety regulations. In less than a week, we” ve already won support from more than 70 worker safety, environmental and public interest organizations.

American workers, the letter says, can’tafford weaker protections in the workplace:

These are devastating cuts to agencies that are already radically underfunded.   As it is, there is only enough capacity for the average workplace to see an inspector every 99 years thanks to low staffing and incessantly inadequate budgets.

The health and safety community is especially vocal about preserving OSHA’s proposed silica rule, the product of decades of effort to study the dangers of this silent killer and craft a cost-effective and practical rule to limit worker exposure.

Silica, widely used in fracking, foundries, construction and other industries, is a known carcinogen and also linked to disabling and potentially fatal respiratory diseases, such as silicosis, bronchitis, and emphysema.

Sadly, there are senators and members of Congress who would rather carry water for big business than help workers breathe freely. In June, Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND) added an amendment to an omnibus appropriations bill that will require OSHA to spend more time-and $800,000 more of your money- before issuing a silica rule.  

These additional steps are a stalling tactic, not a sincere attempt to get better data.   The dangers of silica have been studied extensively,and the science is clear. The U.S. National Toxicology Program, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health have all identified respirable crystalline silica as a cause of lung cancer. OSHA has already completed an extensive study on the economic impact of reducing exposure to silica, which can be accomplished by wetting down and vacuuming up dust at affected worksites.

These are not expensive fixes, but industry is howling about the cost. Sen. Hoeven- whose state has benefited from the fracking boom- is listening. As the Washington Post reports, “Hoeven’s amendment closely parallels recommendations from a collection of mining and construction interests.” One of these industry groups- the National Roofing Contractors Association- bragged about meeting with Hoeven’s staff on the eve of committee vote.

The House version of the appropriations bill, meanwhile, would eliminate Susan Harwood Training Grants, used by non-profit organizations to train workers on how to recognize and eliminate workplace hazards. House Republicans also want to make it harder for non-union workers to have representation by advocates- such as COSH groups- during OSHA workplace inspections.

A bill that cuts budget and cuts back on worker safety deserves a veto. We” ll keep you posted on any response we receive from the White House.  

Note:   If you and/or your organization would like timely updates on policy initiatives such as our letter to President Obama, apply here to join the Protecting Workers Alliance (PWA) listserv.