Before leaving office, President Barack Obama finalized what’s known as the silica rule ― a long-awaited regulation that limits the amount of cancer-causing dust that companies can expose construction workers to. Workplace safety experts and unions spent decades pressing regulators for the changes, squaring off with the homebuilding, industrial sand and chemical lobbies. The Obama administration announced the reforms to much fanfare last year.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration projected the new standards would save more than 600 lives per year. But now they appear to be caught in the Trump administration’s regulatory freeze and rollback. In a statement Thursday, OSHA said it would hold off on enforcing the new rules in the construction industry for at least three more months, since “additional guidance is necessary due to the unique nature of the requirements.”
The delay pushes back enforcement of the rule from late June to late September. But close watchers of the regulation took the move as another indication that the Trump administration may not be committed to it. The new White House has been peeling back one federal rule after another, and Trump has ordered a review of all agency regulations currently on the books, suggesting further repeals were in the offing.
“We remain very concerned that there will be efforts to further delay or weaken the rule,” Peg Seminario, director of health and safety at the AFL-CIO labor federation, said in an email. Seminario noted that industry groups are fighting the silica regulation in court, and the Labor Department under Trump may not defend it the way the agency did under Obama.
A Labor Department spokeswoman said it would not comment beyond the press release.
Occupational health experts described the silica standard as the most significant workplace safety reform of the Obama era. According to the Labor Department, about 2.2 million U.S. workers are exposed each year to silica dust, which is commonly found in construction materials like sand and granite. Workers who breathe high levels can suffer from the respiratory disease silicosis, giving them chronic lung problems and potentially lung cancer.
“We’re kind of flabbergasted ― this rule has been debated and researched for about 40 years. Further delaying this is really unconscionable,” said Emily Gardner, the worker safety advocate at left-leaning Public Citizen. “We’re seeing challenges to every single worker safety standard that’s come out of the Obama administration.”
The other day, Trump signed legislation sent to him by the Republican Congress loosening the injury reporting requirements for employers. The change effectively shortens the amount of time that employers in dangerous industries can be required to keep accurate records of worker injuries, from five years to six months. Former OSHA officials say it will make it harder for the government to track ongoing workplace hazards.
Trump also signed legislation rolling back a regulation that would have made it harder for companies to secure federal contracts if they have a history of serious OSHA violations. Under that regulation, firms seeking federal dollars would have had to disclose their labor law violations from the preceding three years.
Trump’s own nominee for labor secretary, Alexander Acosta, signaled during his confirmation hearing that the silica rule might be in jeopardy, too. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) grilled Acosta on the issue of worker safety, pressing him to commit to enforcing the new silica standards. Acosta refused to do so.
“Will you promise not to weaken the silica rule?” Warren asked.
“I cannot make a commitment because the Labor Department has an order to review all rules,” Acosta responded.