Occupational Safety and Health Administration officials are receiving a wide range of views during three weeks of public hearings in Washington, D.C., on OSHA's proposed rule to cut worker exposure to crystalline silica on construction sites.

OSHA is holding the public meetings, which began on March 18 and run through April 4, to gather more information and input on its proposal, issued on Sept. 12. "This is an open process, and the input we receive will help us ensure that a final rule adequately protects workers, is feasible for employers and is based on the best available evidence," said David Michaels, OSHA chief, in a statement.

The proposal has drawn a firestorm of criticism from construction groups. They contend the proposal should be retracted because of flaws they see in the studies used to support OSHA's conclusion that reducing the permissible exposure limit (PEL) to 50 micrograms/m³ from 250 µg/m³ is feasible. They argue the proposed PEL is neither feasible nor cost-effective.

But construction unions say the proposal would go a long way to protect workers who are at risk of developing silicosis, lung cancer and other respiratory diseases because of high exposures to crystalline silica.

Brad Hammock, a shareholder at law firm Jackson Lewis who testified on March 24 on behalf of the Construction Industry Safety Coalition, said OSHA "has not met its burden" to show the proposed PEL is technically feasible. The proposal's "Table 1" chart, which lists specific construction tasks as well as the necessary steps that should be taken for each task to reduce exposure to crystalline silica, is also flawed, he added. "OSHA's Table I shows that the proposed rule is infeasible" because most of the tasks require employers to provide respiratory protection, Hammock said.

Also, in order to meet the PEL of 50 µg/m³ , firms must actually begin taking action at 25 µg/m³, and OSHA did not demonstrate in its analysis that 25 µg/m³ was achievable at all, he said.

But a day later, representatives of the AFL-CIO's Building & Construction Trades Dept. said a regulation with a more stringent PEL could save as many as 700 lives a year. Deven Johnson, an officer for Local 72 of the Operative Plasterers' and Cement Masons' International Association, said, "All the tools that we need to protect workers are already out there. … Industry will tell you that it is cost-prohibitive to use these tools. That's BS." Sarah Coyne, health and safety director for the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, spoke of a friend who was exposed for years to crystalline silica and developed silicosis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Coyne, who was also a painter, said, "I'm not expendable. I don't think anybody should be exposed to anything that can kill them."

Following the hearings, participants will have 45 days to submit comments.

OSHA has not yet set a date for a final rule to be issued