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OSHA silica rule withstands judicial scrutiny

Data from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration reveals that about 2 million workers in Louisiana and around the country have jobs that expose them to silica. The federal workplace safety watchdog took action to protect these workers in March by reducing the permissible levels of silica to 50 micrograms in each cubic meter of air during an eight-hour shift, but the revised Crystalline Silica Rule was quickly challenged by trade groups and labor advocates.

Silica crystals can penetrate lungs and have been linked with potentially deadly diseases including lung cancer and silicosis, but trade groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce challenged the revised OSHA silica standard in court claiming that the medical evidence supporting it was unconvincing. The lawsuit also alleged that the revised rule violated the Administrative Procedure Act and that meeting the stricter standard would not be feasible for many businesses.

Labor unions objected to the revised rule because certain provisions allowing doctors to order that workers be removed for their health were omitted. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit heard these arguments on Dec. 22, and it rejected the claims made by business groups. A panel of federal appeals judges ruled that the medical evidence supporting the rule revision was sound and that meeting the stricter standard was possible for the vast majority of employers. The court was more convinced by the union arguments and ordered OSHA to explain why the medical removal provisions had been omitted.

Workers' compensation claims made by workers who have become sick after being exposed to substances in the workplace are sometimes challenged by employers fearing a rush of similar applications. When workers' compensation claims are denied because employers argue that illnesses are not job-related, attorneys with experience in this area may be able to file appeals paperwork with the Office of Workers' Compensation and advocate on behalf of sick workers before a judge.

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