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The status of worker health and safety this Labor Day

Two pre-Labor Day federal announcements combine to pinpoint where we are in protecting the health and safety of workers in the United States.

On August 22, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released their National Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries. The 2012 BLS data shows a reduction in the number of fatal work injuries in 2012 compared with 2011. Last year 4,383 workers died from work-related injuries, down from 4,693 fatal work injuries in 2011. So the rate of fatal workplace injuries in 2012 was 3.2 per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers, down from a rate of 3.5 per 100,000 in 2011.

Then on August 23rd, the United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced a long-awaited proposed rule to protect workers from crystalline silica. Jobs that involve cutting, sawing, drilling and crushing of concrete, brick, block and other stone products or that use sand products, such as in glass manufacturing, foundries, hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and sand blasting expose workers to airborne silica dust.

Silica dust causes silicosis, lung cancer, chronic obstructive lung disease, other respiratory diseases and kidney disease. The hundreds of workers who die from silica-linked illnesses every year are part of the 40,000 or more annual deaths from occupational disease — ten times the number of deaths from workplace injuries.

Once the full effects of the silica proposal are realized, OSHA estimates that the new rule will save nearly 700 lives per year. This is a welcome gift for workers who need this proposal to be finalized.

The decrease in the rate of fatal workplace injuries and the issuance of the proposed silica rule are good news for Labor Day. But while we celebrate, we can’t forget that the exposure limits set in the OSHA silica proposal had been recommended by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in 1974. That’s almost 40 years of unnecessarily high exposures for workers. We also can’t forget the tens of thousands of other workers who will die this year from occupational disease caused by other chemicals that could be prevented by modernizing the 1976 Toxics Substances Control Act (TSCA).

This Labor Day, we need to remember that every small victory that is won for the safety and health of workers, communities and the environment needs to be used as a spark to light the way for the many, long overdue victories that are still to be won. Then we can go light the grill.