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OSHA rules on silica, injury tracking set for completion in 2016

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WASHINGTON — Finalizing a long-awaited silica rule is at the top of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration's regulatory agenda, but the projected February completion date is likely optimistic, a top agency official said.

OSHA has proposed a rule governing occupational exposure to crystalline silica, which can lead to chronic silicosis — an occupational disease resulting from employee exposure over 10 years or more.

The agency has estimated that the proposed rule would cost industry $664 million per year and prevent more than 700 deaths annually.

“The regulatory agenda lists it as February,” David Michaels, the agency's assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, said at a National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health meeting Wednesday in Washington. “I think that's optimistic, but we will complete that sometime in 2016.”

He did not elaborate on why the delay is likely, but the rule has gone through multiple comment periods and public hearings since being published in the Federal Register in September 2013. The effort to regulate occupational exposure to crystalline silica goes back as far as 2003.

OSHA also is also analyzing comments on its proposal to regulate occupational exposure to beryllium, which can cause debilitating lung diseases and lung cancer.

“We are working very hard on our beryllium rule,” Mr. Michaels said. “We'll make a decision over the next week or two about the timing of that.”

The agency has other rules in final stages, including its controversial proposal to improve tracking of workplace injuries and illnesses, which is scheduled for completion in March despite employer pushback. Employers criticized what they view as overly burdensome reporting requirements and OSHA's intent to make the information public via a searchable database.

However, employers should not wait to familiarize themselves with OSHA's proposal to modernize its voluntary safety and health program management guidelines to reflect modern technology and practices, even though the public comment deadline isn't until Feb. 15, Mr. Michaels said. The updated guidelines were released in mid-November.

“We think it's a very good document, and we hope employers start looking at it immediately and start using it, because we think it can be very effective right now,” he said.

The agency also is seeking public comments by Jan. 19 on a draft document intended to help employers establish a nonretaliatory workplace environment and provide guidance on protecting whistleblower rights. OSHA has taken employers to court for retaliating against employees who exposed health and safety hazards, but the agency is facing challenges demonstrating to employers why it is important not to retaliate in the first place, he said.

“I think it's a very important document, and I think it will get us very far,” Mr. Michaels said.