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Appeals court rejects challenge to OSHA's silica dust standards

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit has rejected a challenge to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's latest safety standards for inhaled silica dust. Business groups led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce had argued that OSHA had overstepped its authority and that the rule is not feasible to implement.

Respirable crystalline silica is made up of tiny particles of silica. Much like asbestos, inhaled silica dust has been shown to have human health consequences. Both asbestos and inhaled silica dust can cause pulmonary diseases and lung cancer. Inhaled silica dust can also cause kidney disease, according to OSHA. Asbestos is most widely known for its ability to cause the deadly lung cancer known as mesothelioma.

In order to prevent these adverse health consequences, OSHA issued standards for construction exposure to respirable crystalline silica and for maritime/general industry exposure. The rule lowered the acceptable exposure level and also required employers to provide safety training, protective respirators and periodic medical evaluations.

Business groups questioned whether the OSHA standards were based on sufficient evidence of harm and enough proof that further limiting workers' exposure would actually help. The appeals court rejected these challenges. It found that current exposure levels present a "significant risk of material impairment" among workers. It also found that a change in practices -- the reduction in exposure levels -- would lessen or eliminate that risk.

The court also ruled that OSHA did not have to provide absolute certainty that exposure reduction is needed. Instead, it was required to support its findings with substantial evidence, which it did.

The business groups also argued that OSHA does not have the authority to issue rules that are not technically or economically feasible for employers, which they argued these rules are not.

The court ruled that OSHA's responsibility in regard to feasibility was to confirm, based on substantial evidence, that the rule would not "threaten massive dislocation to, or imperil the existence of, the industry." The court found ample evidence that this responsibility had been met.

Overall, the court said that OSHA's rules don't have to be perfect -- they simply must be reasonable, which it found they were.

Interestingly, unions challenged OSHA's new rule, as well. They argued that the new standard is not protective enough. Among other issues, the unions argued that the rule should have allowed employees to continue to receive pay and benefits if a doctor recommended they be kept away from inhaled silica. The court found that OSHA had failed to explain its decision not to include the provision and sent the case back to the trial court for further consideration of the issue.

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