In a 2013 speech to the AFL-CIO, U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez shared the story of Alan White, a fortysomething man who told him, “If I walk a half a mile, I’ve got to sleep 13 hours.” White, Perez explained, was a victim of silica, a mineral substance found in rock that’s commonly released as dust during construction, mining, and fracking. Numerous studies have concluded breathing silica dust can cause the pulmonary disease silicosis, as well as lung cancer. “Alan’s fear is that, in his case, the issue will be studied quite literally to death,” Perez warned. “I don’t want that to happen.” Yet, when he was asked how soon the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which he oversees, might finalize long-discussed regulations on silica dust, he demurred. “You know,” he said, “whenever you try to give a precise date, you always end up being wrong.”
Since 1974, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has consistently recommended that OSHA issue a stronger rule to control silica exposure, which OSHA estimates would save 699 lives and prevent 1,626 silica-related illnesses a year. OSHA began working on silica under President George W. Bush, and in December 2009 it announced a schedule for publishing a proposed regulation by July 2010. In February 2011, months behind schedule, the agency sent a draft rule to the White House for what was supposed to be a 90-day review. Instead, the Office of Management and Budget held on to it for two and a half years. “The silica rule got caught up in a larger debate about regulations and the economy,” says Seth Harris, then acting secretary of labor.