In an effort to break a stubborn logjam at the White House, a call has been issued for Laborers, trade unionists, public health activists and others to sign a petition on the White House website that seeks immediate action to protect American workers from silica exposure on the job.
In a January 17, 2013, media release, LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan said, “I encourage our members and concerned citizens across America to sign the online petition. Any further delays in the rulemaking process will only add to the death toll.”
Silica is a key component in the cement and concrete products used widely in construction. During mixing, breaking and other common construction activities, microscopic particles become airborne and can be inhaled by unprotected workers. Once inhaled, silica can cause silicosis, an irreversible and debilitating respiratory illness that develops over several decades. Silica is also associated with lung cancer, chronic renal disease and autoimmune disorders. Almost two million workers are exposed each year. Thousands develop silicosis, and about 280 succumb to silica-related diseases.
Efforts by OSHA to regulate exposure to silica began more than 15 years ago. Stalled during the Bush Administration, they were revived after President Obama’s election and the appointment of David Michaels as Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA. A proposed rule was drafted and, as required by law, sent for review by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), a White House agency, in February 2011. However, business interests marshaled resistance, and despite the OMB’s mandate to complete reviews in 90 days, the draft remains bottled up at the agency two years after its review was requested.
“One of the strengths of the Obama Administration,” says LHSFNA’s Occupational Safety and Health Division Director Scott Schneider, “is the channels it has opened to receive and consider action recommendations from ordinary citizens. We the People is a White House website where anyone can create a petition that will be reviewed by the Administration if it receives a required number of signatures, in this case, 25,000.” The petition drive opened on January 12, and it must acquire the necessary signatures by February 11. The petition reads:
For about 100 years workers have been dying from exposure to silica on the job. Silica can cause both lung disease (silicosis) and cancer. The government has been talking about regulating exposures ever since the 1940s and sponsored a campaign to prevent silicosis in the 1990s. OSHA has drafted a proposal to reduce silica exposures in the workplace but it has been sitting at the White House OMB for almost two years! It is about time to move forward and promulgate a silica standard to protect American workers. Please sign this petition if you want to see action.
Since the petition was posted, it has won the endorsement of LIUNA, the Health & Safety Department of the AFL-CIO, a number of unions and a variety of public health organizations, all of which call on their supporters to sign. Signing is easy. Click here, and you will be prompted to create a We the People account or to sign in if you already have one (to control fraud and ensure minimum transparency, all signers must provide their name and email address; nothing else is required). After creating your account, you can sign the petition, and you can use your account to sign other petitions in the future.
Online advocacy is rapidly becoming the most powerful means of direct citizen and consumer participation in government and corporate decision-making. A well-known example was the so-called “Komen Foundation affair” last year during which the Foundation announced it would no longer support Planned Parenthood and was then forced by an onslaught of online criticism to correct its course. A limitless array of other causes now use Facebook, Twitter and other social media to promote proposals and demonstrate the breadth of their support. Most recently, following the Newtown massacre, an outpouring of online commentary is raising the possibility of significant gun control reform for the first time in decades. While it is always impossible to predict which proposals may “go viral,” each effort succeeds in demonstrating its current level of support while also building momentum for its on-going struggle.
Many issue activists speculate that after re-election the President will be more willing to challenge long-entrenched lobbies that resist change if public support is widely evident and demanding. If the silica petition can acquire the necessary signatures, the White House likely will check on the OMB’s stalled review and, perhaps, accelerate the standard’s ultimate adoption.