The U.S. Department of Labor Office of Inspector General (OIG) found that more workers are being exposed to respirable silica after having conducted an audit on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Not only is silica a key ingredient in the manufacture of glass, but OSHA officials say the most severe exposures to crystalline silica result from abrasive blasting, which is used for etching or frosting glass. Additionally, crystalline silica exposure can occur in the maintenance, repair and replacement of the linings of refractory brick furnaces, such as those used to manufacture glass.

Long-term exposure to respirable crystalline silica can cause lung cancer, silicosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and kidney disease, according to OSHA. It also estimates that 2.3 million workers are at risk for exposure to silica annually.

According to the report, OIG found that OSHA has reduced its enforcement efforts by not fully invoking, via inspection activity, its Occupational Exposure to Respirable Crystalline Silica rule, which calls for greater protections to minimize workers’ exposures to hazardous conditions. Additionally, the report states “inspection data provided by OSHA was inconsistent with data extracted from OSHA’s publicly available database.” The agency also failed to “set clear goals and processes for evaluating whether outreach efforts sufficiently reached covered industries and 2.3 million workers at risk for silica exposure,” OIG declares.

An audit reviewed silica inspection and violation data from October 1, 1999, through February 20, 2020, with some inspection data coming directly from OSHA and its public database.. OIG also conducted interviews with OSHA officials from the national office and state offices in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin, Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. Evidence from inspector training for the new standards and documentation for OSHA’s outreach and guidance program were also reviewed.

The inspection and violation data that OSHA provided to OIG was inconsistent with the inspection data from OSHA’s publicly available data catalog, the report states. Therefore, the OIG was unable to validate the reliability of inspection data reported publicly by OSHA.

When asked about the issue, OSHA responded with, “Every time we do a data pull, we get different results, not because the underlying data changes, but because, whenever we build a custom data pull, we invariably design the program to extract the data in different ways. This discrimination on the part of the programmer to extract the data in some kind of readable format invariably causes differences in the readability of the information, but the overall numbers remain the same and the ‘data’ remains the same because [we are] always pulling from the same source.”

The OIG report suggests that OSHA implement a policy, for future emphasis programs, that minimizes the lapse in enforcement between canceled, revised or new programs; provide the OIG with “read-only” access to the OSHA Information System (OIS) to facilitate data requests on future audits; and establish meaningful goals and processes to assess whether OSHA’s outreach events are achieving the desired results in reaching a targeted number of workers at risk of exposure to silica.