Summer 2016 Letter from the Director

Photo: John R. Balmes, COEH Director
John R. Balmes, COEH Director

Over the 40 years that I have been working in occupational health, a major disappointment has been the failure of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to issue new regulations or modify existing regulations when evidence supports such action. It has been particularly frustrating when the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the agency charged with making recommendations to OSHA for standards development, has recommended stricter permissible exposure limits to better protect workers, but has been ignored. In the specific cases of crystalline silica and beryllium, NIOSH has long recommended stricter permissible exposure limits based on considerable published research. Unfortunately, opponents of new rules on silica and beryllium have been able to tie up OSHA in bureaucratic knots for many years such that new rules have not been promulgated. This failure to act has unnecessarily led to disability and lives lost from silicosis, chronic beryllium disease, and lung cancer.

At the outset of the Obama Administration almost eight years ago, OSHA, under the leadership of new head David Michaels, started to move forward a long dormant effort to lower the permissible exposure limit for beryllium. I was a consultant to OSHA on that effort and was initially excited about the possibility of finally getting something done to reduce the risk of workers becoming sensitized to the metal. The only U.S. supplier of beryllium products, Brush Wellman, insisted that low levels of exposure were not hazardous and fought tightening of the exposure standard as part of their defense against product liability lawsuits. Things began to change about five years ago when the company, now called Materion, approached the United Steelworkers to suggest they work together to recommend a new standard to OSHA. In 2012, after more than two years of negotiation, the company and the United Steelworkers submitted a joint plan that served as the basis for the proposed OSHA standard that would lower the permissible exposure limit from 2.0 to 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter. Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA, David Michaels, was quoted in the New York Times in August 2015 as follows: “In some ways, this is the final chapter of making peace with the past. Once we finish, these workers will be protected and we will end the epidemic of beryllium exposure in the United States.”

The story about the new OSHA silica standard is even longer. The agency’s new rule – announced in March – replaces one set in 1971. It reduces the permissible exposure limit for respirable crystalline silica to 50 micrograms per cubic meter, five times less than the current limit for the construction and shipyard sectors and half the current level for other workplaces. In 1974, because multiple studies documented that silicosis can result from exposures below the old standard, NIOSH recommended that OSHA substantially tighten the silica exposure limit. But industry groups, primarily from the construction sector, fought efforts to tighten the silica permissible exposure limit, arguing that a tighter rule would be infeasible, too expensive, and a job-killer. Labor groups kept pushing for a new standard, and 42 years after NIOSH’s recommendation, we finally have one.

The silica story is prima facia evidence of an OSHA standards-setting process that is broken and does not protect worker safety and health. The agency is hemmed in by court rulings, corporate resistance, and bureaucratic procedures that have essentially stymied the process of development of new standards. OSHA has updated few of its 470 permissible exposure limits since adopting them shortly after the agency’s birth in 1971.

Perhaps because he is reflecting on his legacy, President Obama seems to have finally realized the nation needs to do a better job at protecting worker safety and health. On April 28 of this year, he issued the first ever Presidential Proclamation on Workers’ Memorial Day and noted “the movement for worker safety was inspired by a simple notion: that those who contribute so much to the economy and spirit of our country should have every chance to share in its promise.” He went on to say, “This Workers’ Memorial Day, as we join in solemn remembrance of those who lost their lives undertaking their labor, let us carry forward the vision of just and safe working conditions for all of America’s workers. “

To underscore this vision, OSHA has recently issued a new final rule to “Improve Tracking of Workplace Injuries and Illnesses” that requires businesses with 250 or more employees currently required to keep OSHA injury and illness records to electronically submit this information to OSHA, which will make the data publically available. Businesses with 20-249 employees in certain industries with historically high rates of occupational injuries and illnesses will also be required to electronically submit information to OSHA. With this rule, OSHA hopes to encourage employers to increase their efforts to prevent worker injuries and illnesses, as well as enable researchers to examine the data to help make workplaces safer and identify new safety hazards. In addition, the final rule includes provisions that encourage workers to report work-related injuries and illnesses to their employers and prohibit employers from retaliating against workers for making those reports. Let’s hope OSHA vigorously enforces this new rule and that employers embrace its spirit.

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