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One of the oldest known workplace hazards is breathing in silica dust. Silica which is basically sand damages the lungs and causes diseases like silicosis and cancer. Over 2 million people in this country get exposed to silica at work. And today, the Department of Labor is issuing a controversial new rule that dramatically reduces the amount of silica workers are allowed to breathe in. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Silica is in concrete, brick, rock. When you bust that stuff up, silica dust flies into the air. The danger has long been obvious.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "STOP SILICOSIS")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: 1935, a wave of fear was sweeping the country. Silicosis was taking its toll from the ranks of American workers. Cause of the disease - dust. Results of the disease - disablement, poverty, death. Cure for the disease - none.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: This movie is called "Stop Silicosis." It was made by the Department of Labor under its first secretary, Frances Perkins. The current secretary of labor, Tom Perez, has her portrait over his desk.
TOM PEREZ: Frances Perkins is the gold standard of all labor secretaries.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: What do you think she would think about this silica regulation?
PEREZ: She'd probably say it's about time.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says the existing rule that limits how much silica workers can be exposed to hasn't been changed since the early 1970s, and even back then the science showed it was inadequate.
PEREZ: So we've known for over 40 years that it needed to be strengthened, and it has taken 40 years to strengthen it.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The biggest impact will be on construction. One worker who's strongly in favor of the new rule is Tom Ward. His father died of silicosis after doing sandblasting at his job.
TOM WARD: We watched my dad basically suffocate.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Ward is a brick and stonemason in Detroit. When he first started working, he didn't realize his saws and grinders exposed him to silica dust. He worries about what he breathed in, and he's troubled whenever he passes a construction site and sees workers in a cloud of dust.
WARD: They have no idea that they're slowly poisoning themselves over their careers.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The new limits on silica exposure will affect not just construction but a slew of other industries, from dental labs to fracking.
DAVID MICHAELS: We're estimating that once it's fully in effect, it will save about 600 lives a year.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: David Michaels is the head of OSHA, the Labor Department's safety agency. He says before issuing this rule, the government held weeks of hearings, took comments from thousands of stakeholders and did all kinds of analyses.
MICHAELS: We have to show that the rule will be economically and technologically feasible for every industry that we cover.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: But a lot of industry groups argue that it won't be. Controlling silica dust means using vacuums, wetting down surfaces or having workers wear respirators. Brian Turmail is the spokesman for the Associated General Contractors of America. He says if you've got to cordon off a dusty part of a construction site and only let in workers with protective gear...
BRIAN TURMAIL: You would delay or lengthen the time it takes to complete projects and certainly the cost of building any type of construction project - because virtually every type of construction project's going to create dust - will go up significantly.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He thinks officials should've just better enforced the existing exposure limits. Amanda Wood is director of labor employment policy for the National Association of Manufacturers. She says the administration says the cost of this new rule will be hundreds of millions of dollars.
AMANDA WOOD: Based on our estimates, we know that the true cost will be more in the billions.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: She says they'll be considering all their options for how to respond, including turning to Congress or the courts.
Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
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