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The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s “diminished” enforcement of its 2016 Occupational Exposure to Respirable Crystalline Silica rule has left “more workers at risk for exposure to silica,” according to a U.S. Department of Labor Office of Inspector General Audit report released Thursday.
The rule was created after 18 years of rulemaking to reduce and eliminate worker exposure to respirable crystalline silica, which occurs in many common materials such as stone, brick, mortar, and ceramics, and, when inhaled, causes serious, potentially fatal illnesses. An estimated 2.3 million workers are at risk for exposure, according to the report.
Yet the OIG audit found that “OSHA did not fully invoke, via inspection activity, the rule’s greater protections to minimize workers’ exposures to hazardous conditions.”
OSHA’s inspection data for the two fiscal years after the final rule became enforceable shows the agency performed an average of 440 inspections annually. In contrast, for the two fiscal years before the final rule became enforceable, OSHA performed an average of 1,054 silica inspections per year. Therefore, after the final rule became enforceable, OSHA performed approximately 600 fewer silica inspections per year, a decrease of more than 50%, the audit states.
The OIG recommended in the audit that OSHA implement its policies and minimize the “lapse in enforcement between canceled, revised or new programs” and that it establish “meaningful goals and processes to access whether OSHA’s outreach events are achieving the desired results in reaching a targeted number of workers at risk of exposure to silica.”
In its response to the audit, OSHA said in part that it delayed enforcement “to allow employers time to become compliant.”
Construction employers should utilize the “grace period” that they are receiving to comply with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s silica regulation to review their programs and make sure they are taking the necessary steps to come into compliance, according to experts.