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Alan White, a 48-year-old foundry worker from Buffalo, N.Y., suffers from silicosis, a debilitating lung disease caused by exposure to silica dust. Harry Scull

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration on Friday proposed a long-awaited rule to control worker exposures to silica, a toxic mineral that can cause the deadly lung disease silicosis, lung cancer and other ailments.

The rule could save nearly 700 lives and prevent 1,600 new cases of silicosis each year, OSHA chief David Michaels told reporters in a conference call. Tiny silica particles are unleashed through activities such as sandblasting, concrete-cutting and a form of oil and gas drilling called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

“This proposal is long overdue,” Michaels said. “OSHA’s current standards are dangerously out of date and do not adequately protect workers’ health.”

The agency estimates that 2.2 million workers, most of them in construction, are exposed to silica in the United States. The rule will likely take “many months” to become final, Michaels said, with public hearings planned for March.

Last year the Center for Public Integrity highlighted OSHA’s inaction on silica as an example of regulatory inertia on workplace hazards. A silicosis victim interviewed by the Center, Alan White, took part in Friday’s conference call.

White, a 48-year-old foundry worker from Buffalo, N.Y., said his employer never warned him about the “unseen dangers” of silica. Now, he said, “Even simple tasks like walking while talking on a cellphone are difficult.” It recently took him an hour to walk the mile between his home and the foundry, White said.

OSHA’s silica proposal had been under review by the White House Office of Management and Budget since Feb. 14, 2011 — more than 900 days. It became a symbol of the regulatory bottleneck at OMB.

White House records show that OMB has held 10 meetings on silica since March 31, 2011, mostly with representatives of industry groups such as the American Foundry Society, the National Industrial Sand Association and the National Association of Home Builders. Many industry officials, citing what they say would be high compliance costs, question the need for a stricter silica exposure limit and say better enforcement of the current limit is sufficient to protect workers.

Michaels, however, said the existing standard, adopted in 1971, does not reflect “the most recent scientific evidence” — notably, that silica dust can cause lung cancer. OSHA is proposing a limit of 50 micrograms of silica per cubic meter of air, a number recommended by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in 1974. The current limit varies, depending on the silica content of dust, but can be far higher than 50 micrograms.

OSHA estimates that it would cost the average workplace covered by the proposed rule $1,242 per year to comply — using simple techniques such as wetting concrete before cutting it — and less than half that amount for companies with fewer than 20 employees. It predicts the rule would have “average net benefits” of $2.8 billion to $4.7 billion per year over the next 60 years.

Celeste Monforton, a lecturer at George Washington University and a former OSHA official, said the glacial pace of the silica rule is a product of “policymakers and lawmakers buying into the false argument that these regulations are too costly to pursue” and overreliance on cost-benefit analyses.

“How do you put a price on Alan White not being able to live to see his grandchildren?” Monforton asked.

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A journalist since 1978, Jim Morris has won more than 80 awards for his work, including the George Polk...