Obama administration unveils rules on silica, union-busting

After years of consideration, and brushing aside one final attempt by an industry lobby to derail it, the Obama administration issued a final rule that it says would cut workers’ exposure to harmful silica dust in half.

The silica rule is one of two big-ticket pro-worker rules the administration unveiled the week of March 21. The other would change the definition of when so-called “labor consultants” – otherwise known as “persuaders” and union-busters – must disclose their spending.


Stopping silica exposure

The silica rule, proposed by OSHA, the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, was approved by the Office of Management and Budget on March 21 despite a last-minute industry attempt to kill it.

A month before OMB’s decision, the Interlocking Concrete Paving Institute, a lobby whose website forthrightly proclaims its opposition to cutting workers’ silica dust exposure, met behind closed doors with OMB, OSHA and other federal officials to complain about it. The institute is one of many business lobbies that opposes OSHA’s new rule. Its plea got nowhere.  

The Department of Labor first recognized silica was a hazard to workers in a 1938 warning film. It’s especially hazardous to construction, factory and shipyard workers. The new rule, DOL says, would prevent 700 deaths and exposure to silica dust of 1,600 workers per year. 

As a result, unions have campaigned for years for the silica exposure rule, which would cover at least two million workers. The current 45-year-old rule has outdated methods to measure silica exposure, while the new rule would let businesses expose workers to 50 micrograms of silica dust per cubic meter of air per worker each eight-hour day. 

 “Silica dust is a killer. It causes silicosis, a lung disease that literally suffocates workers to death,” the Steelworkers said just before OSHA hearings on the rule. “It also causes lung cancer, respiratory and kidney diseases.”

So the union reaction to OMB’s release of the rule could be summed up in one word: Finally. That’s because OMB has sat on the rule since OSHA sent it over in mid-2013.

Not only that, but a new source of silica exposure has arisen in the U.S. economy since DOL started working on the silica rule, according to the Center to Protect Workers’ Rights, a labor-funded construction safety organization: Fracking. 

Large quantities of silica sand are used during “fracking,” a process of hydraulic fracturing in the oil and gas industries. Between fracking and other uses of silica, more than 2 million workers are exposed to deadly silica dust each year, the AFL-CIO said.

Exposing union-busters
DOL released its new rule on the union-busters on March 24. 

Until now, the union-busters had to file with DOL only if they directly opposed organizing drives in workplaces. DOL’s Office of Labor-Management Standards wants to order them to file even if they’re indirectly involved, such as when they give “advice” to employers on how to defeat unions. The union-busting industry is a multi-million-dollar enterprise.

“Workers should know who is behind an anti-union message. It’s a matter of basic fairness,” said Labor Secretary Thomas Perez. “This new rule will allow workers to know whether the messages they’re hearing are coming directly from their employer or from a paid, third-party consultant. 

“Full disclosure of persuader agreements gives workers the information they need to make informed choices about how they pursue their rights to organize and bargain collectively. As in all elections, more information means better decisions.”

Article reprinted from WorkdayMinnesota.