White House Criticized About Policies on Workplace Toxins, Asbestos

Scientist in a lab

Workplace health and safety advocates are criticizing the White House for delaying a regulation that provides a safer work environment for industrial workers, citing that approximately 60 lives could have been saved during the time that the policy was being held up.

The debate is centered around a workplace policy that would limit workers’ exposure to silica dust, a substance commonly used in construction materials and has been linked to the development of lung cancer and other respiratory illnesses.

Advocates are reminding the current White House and its Office of Management and Budget (OMB) that this inaction is reminiscent of the previous administration’s stance on asbestos, another workplace toxin that accounts for thousands of lung cancer and mesothelioma cancer cases.

“The Bush administration’s OMB was caught several times weakening, delaying, or outright stopping science-based rules on many topics, including exposure to asbestos, ground-level ozone pollution, endangered species, formaldehyde emissions during plywood production, particulate matter, and the impact of climate change on public health,” the Union of Concerned Scientists said in a statement.

According to reports, the OMB review period is normally limited to 90 days, with some exceptions allowing for an extended 45-day review period and time for public comment, all before the regulation becomes published in the Federal Registry.

With consideration to a regulation on silica dust, the White House has allegedly held nine ‘closed-door meetings’ with the National Association of Home Builders, the American Chemistry Council and the National Industrial Sand Association, all industry groups that have financial interests in holding up the policy.

To clarify their stance on the matter, approximately 300 workplace safety advocates delivered a letter to the White House vocalizing their dissent of the policy hold-up. In the letter, they wrote:

“Nearly a year ago, on February 14, 2011, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) submitted the draft proposed health standard on respirable crystalline silica to OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), pursuant to Executive Order 12866 (EO). Although the EO directs OIRA to complete its review within 90 days (with the allowance for one 30 day extension) the draft OSHA silica standard has been with OIRA for more than 345 days.

Moreover, OMB staff has hosted at least nine private meetings with individuals about the proposed OSHA action, most of whom represent companies with a direct financial interest in the matter. These closed door meetings with special interests are wholly inconsistent with your promise of openness and public participation.”

Despite the reality that the health risks associated with silica dust and asbestos exposure are real and well documented, the financial interests and lobbying efforts of industry groups such as the National Association of Home Builders have proven to be a factor in holding up the policy.

Reality of Workplace Hazards

Workers in industrial fields face countless dangers everyday that they arrive to work. Construction work is actually one of the most hazardous jobs in America, with much of the danger attributed to exposure to dangerous substances. Like silica dusts, asbestos is a material that is extremely common in the workplace and is something that the White House and OMB was been forced to address.

Asbestos exposure has been a workplace danger for decades. Because of its heat resistant and insulating properties, it was widely used in a variety of products including construction materials, household items, protective clothing, in addition to protective clothing and equipment.

According to the National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety, workers in over 75 occupational groups have been exposed to asbestos, with the likelihood of additional exposure to other toxins as well.

The presence of silica dust and asbestos is not always apparent. Workers may be constantly exposed to these substances without even being aware of it.

Silica is one of the primary components in rock and sand like granite and sandstone. The dust is created when these materials are drilled or altered, exposing dust parties in the air. Like asbestos fibers, these dust particles are ingested and cause lung damage for years.

Some estimates state that between 1990 and 1999, one-fourth of worker deaths related to asbestosis, a diseases associated with asbestos exposure, occurred in the construction industry.

As research continues to define the real dangers of these toxic chemicals, it is likely that the use of materials like silica and asbestos may continue to reduce or possibly discontinue in the future.

The government may play an active role in this process, as many workplace policies are originated in laws that require certain standards of quality for workers.

The degree to how much the current White House understands and addresses these occupational concerns is still being determined. It is likely that the White House will continue to balance the interests of industry heavyweights while still being considerate to protective worker policies.

It is even more likely that advocates will continue to keep a sharp eye on the White House, OMB and this contentious issue, while remaining skeptical of motives and progress.

“I would say there are a number of pro-industry groups within the administration wary of passing anything that may upset industry, especially in an election year,” said Justin Feldman, a worker health and safety advocate at Public Citizen.

Mark Hall joined the Mesothelioma Center as a writer in 2011. Prior to joining the content team, Mark graduated from the University of Florida and then spent several years writing about business, entrepreneurship and technology for various online publications.

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