Occupational Safety and Health Issues
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With Updates to EPCRA Reporting Rules, EPA Has Another Opportunity to Better Protect Workers

On Monday, EPA announced its intention to revise the emergency planning rules for industrial facilities. The goal of the revisions is to give state and local emergency planning committees better information that they can use to prepare for chemical spills, explosions, and other disasters at industrial facilities. In the initial proposal released Monday, EPA disregards a request from first responders that the new rules demand more information about the total number of people likely to be on-site during an emergency situation. EPA is proposing that facilities simply report the number of full-time employees, rather than what first responders say would be a more useful estimate of the total number of people likely to be on-site, including contract workers and members of the public.

EPA’s emergency planning rules are based on congressional mandates found in the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA). EPCRA requires industrial facilities to report information about extremely hazardous substances that they store or use so that fire fighters and other first responders know what to expect when disaster strikes. EPA has developed simplified forms and a web-based system to facilitate easier compliance with the law and better access to information for response teams and emergency planners. 

The statute’s history is a blue-green success story that underscores the inadequacy of one aspect of Monday’s proposal—a new data-point that would only count the number of full-time employees at a facility. In the late 1970s, unions in the United States undertook a major campaign centered on workers’ right to know about the hazards they faced in the workplace. By the early 1980s, their diverse efforts at individual workplaces and in several states prompted the development of a uniform federal standard, OSHA’s Hazard Communication standard. The key provisions of the “HazCom standard” require employers to provide their workers with Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) for chemicals to which they may be exposed and mandate training to help workers use that information. The standard isn’t perfect, but it brought practical implementation of the right-to-know principle to the federal level, setting the stage for EPCRA. Shortly after OSHA instituted the HazCom standard, Congress began working on amendments to the Superfund law. The workers who did the dirty job of Superfund site remediation joined with environmentalists and others to fight for an expansion of the right-to-know principle to the communities surrounding cleanup sites and other industrial facilities.

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IUR Update a Good Start, But a Missed Opportunity for Worker Health and Safety

On Tuesday, EPA finalized important revisions to its Inventory Update Rule (IUR), which is the federal government’s primary means of finding out what chemicals are being produced or used, where they’re being produced and used, and in what quantities. The revisions close up some major loopholes created by the Bush administration and should give the agency more accurate data for its chemical management program, which GAO tagged in 2009 as being at “high risk” of becoming ineffective.

EPA made some important improvements to the rule, now dubbed the Chemical Data Reporting (CDR) rule. Manufacturers will once again have to submit data every four years, instead of every five. When they do, they’ll have to submit data for each year since the last report, instead of just the data from the year in which the report is due. The generic threshold for having to report detailed information about downstream uses of a chemical will be shifted back to apply to any chemical produced at a site in volumes exceeding 25,000 pounds in a year. That closes a loophole created by the Bush administration, which required only basic chemical identification and simplified on-site production volumes for manufacturers who kept production volumes below 300,000 pounds during the reporting year. And to further ensure that we begin to develop a better picture of how chemicals are distributed in commerce, the standard for reporting information about downstream uses has been changed from the Bush standard of only that which is “readily obtainable” (which, by rule, absolved manufacturers from “extensive file searches”), to a better standard of “reasonably ascertainable.” Those changes and others will give EPA and the public a much better picture of how chemicals pervade our lives.

However, EPA missed an opportunity to use this new rule to really help out its sister agencies OSHA and NIOSH. In my blog post from last August, when EPA proposed the revisions that were finalized yesterday, I noted that, by EPA’s admission, the IUR/CDR data only enabled EPA to develop “qualitative exposure characterizations with relative ranking of low, medium, or high for characterizing potential exposures to various populations,” including workers. Those exposure characterizations are inadequate for supporting protective regulation. At the time, EPA asked the public to comment on whether the updated IUR should include additional data elements, such as worker tasks or occupational exposure monitoring, to improve risk management capabilities at EPA and other agencies.

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OSHA Releases Self-Evaluation of its Role in Federal Response to BP Oil Spill

OSHA published a report (pdf) last week on its role in the federal government’s response to last year’s massive oil spill. Within days of the blowout aboard the Deepwater Horizon, OSHA officials were in Louisiana, working to ensure that the people involved in the response and cleanup had adequate protection from the myriad hazards they would face. The new report is mainly a list of accomplishments, not an introspective “lessons learned” self-evaluation that could have paved the way for policy changes that would improve the federal oil spill response system. Nevertheless, the document is worth the read because it provides a good sense of the difficulty OSHA faced in protecting a huge workforce from so many hazards, as part of an unprecedented government response.

The report covers a handful of areas where OSHA did most of its work: site visits, intervention, and technical support; chemical exposure assessment; personal protective equipment (PPE); training; guidance and publications; community outreach; injury and illness reporting; and efforts to support the Labor Department’s big-picture goals of hiring local and displaced workers. 

The report’s sections on enforcement and training missed some key points that I would have liked to see the agency address. First, the report glosses over the issue of enforcement versus compliance assistance. Following the spill, OSHA chose to focus its staff’s efforts on maximizing site visits, at the expense of strong enforcement. The agency made the calculation that its limited staff in the Gulf region would be able to better protect workers by eschewing citations in favor of guidance and assistance to the employer (BP).

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The McAteer Report: A Mine Safety Blockbuster

The report issued this morning by the Governor's Independent Investigation Panel on the West Virginia mine explosion that killed 29 miners at the Massey Energy Company’s Upper Big Branch Mine just over a year ago will never make the New York Times best seller list. But it should be required reading for all policymakers with responsibility for protecting the safety of the workers who spend much of their lives deep underground digging coal.

Although the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) and Massey Energy have conducted their own investigations (MSHA's is forthcoming) into the causes of the tragic explosion, Joe Manchin, then the Governor, correctly assumed that the full story was not likely to come out of two entities with such an obvious stake in the outcome. He asked Davitt McAteer, the head of MSHA during the Clinton Administration and a long-time advocate of greater safety in the nation’s underground mines to assemble an independent and objective panel to investigate the explosion. McAteer brought together a team composed of experts without any special connection to the coal industry or its regulators.

The tightly drafted 120-page report provides a clear and detailed account of events that preceded and followed the explosion and of what we know about its causes based on its own examination of the physical evidence and on more thant 300 interviews with persons involved in the explosion and in the management of the Massey Energy Company. 

The panel concludes that the immediate cause of the explosion was methane gas that had reached unsafe levels in the mine. Massey Energy took the position that there was a massive entry of methane into the chamber through a crack in the floor that inundated the mine. The governor’s panel, by contrast, concluded that the explosion was caused by a small amount of methane that, once ignited by a spark from a shearer, caused a fireball that spread to coal dust that had inexcusably been allowed to build up for miles throughout the mine. The coal dust in turn carried the explosion throughout more than two miles of the large mine. The report implies that the ignition of a small amount of methane would not have caused the massive explosion and that absent the negligent accumulations of coal dust, the miners might well have survived the explosion.

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Presidential Appointee at SBA Maligns OSHA's Industrial Noise Proposal; Claims Ear Plugs "Solve" the Problem

Congress charged the Office of Advocacy of the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) with the job of representing the interests of small business before regulatory agencies, such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). As an agency of the federal government, it has an obligation to taxpayers to get its facts straight before it speaks. Lately, it has ignored this basic obligation, most notably sponsoring a study that used flawed methodology to claim that regulations impose $1.75 trillion in costs every year.

Now, Dr. Winslow Sargeant, Chief Counsel for Advocacy at the SBA, has upped his attack on OSHA’s efforts to update its noise regulation, making assertions that are highly misleading and at times simply wrong. In an interview last week with the Phoenix Business Journal, Sargeant claimed:

The OSHA rule was a solution to a problem that had already been solved. Basically, this was a noise abatement rule. At some factories, there's noise. The machine makes noise. There's already a solution -- ear plugs, earmuffs that workers would wear. That solved the problem. OSHA came along and said, well, that may solve the problem. But we think companies should buy new equipment with lower noise figures. So now we've gone from a solution of $10 or so to millions of dollars to solve the same problem.

Dr. Sargeant, a presidential appointee, is not arguing that he thinks reducing machine noise isn't worth the cost; he's actually asserting that there is no safety difference whatsoever between using ear plugs and reducing equipment noise. That's not true.

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White House Transparency Doesn't Apply to Industry Meetings on Worker Safety Rules

Cross-posted from The Pump Handle.

President Obama received an award last week for his efforts to improve openness in federal agencies. Jon Stewart poked fun at it (see clip) and I actually thought it might have been an April Fool's joke because of what I'd learned earlier in the week.

The President's own Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) has hosted two meetings with industry representatives who are opposed to an OSHA regulation on crystalline silica, but OIRA fails to disclose these meetings on its website (screenshot 4/11/11.) This is the second time in as many occasions that this OMB office has failed the transparency test when it comes to extra-curricular meetings on OSHA rules. OIRA did the same thing last summer on OSHA's proposed minor change to its injury recording log. Others have identified even more serious infractions by OIRA, but have yet to receive a response from the White House.

The practice of posting a notice about meetings between regulated parties and OMB staff began during the GW Bush Administration, not a group known for transparency. Even that very secretive Administration saw the value in informing the public promptly of such meetings. The Obama Administration's OIRA is now 0-2 when it comes to disclosure of meetings about OSHA rules. (Their performance may actually be even worse. For all I know they've had other meetings. We just don't know to look for them on OIRA's website.)

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Key OSHA Health and Safety Initiative Potentially Delayed Months by OMB Nitpicking

Last week, the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) approved a survey to be conducted for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) as part of the agency's efforts to develop an Injury and Illness Prevention Program (I2P2) standard. Surveys, like this one, have to be approved by OIRA according to the Paperwork Reduction Act, and the lengthy approval may stall development of the I2P2 standard for four or more months for no apparently good reason. OIRA made only minor changes to the draft documents.

The I2P2 standard is OSHA’s signature regulatory initiative, and it comes in the nick of time. With its small and dwindling staff, a result of Congress putting it on a starvation diet of resources, OSHA has found it difficult to update its safety and health standards to protect workers, or to adopt new ones to address hazards that are not yet covered, leaving thousands of workers with inadequate protection. To fill this gap, Dr. David Michaels, OSHA’s administrator, and a public health expert, has proposed I2P2, a standard that would require employers to establish a management program in which employers and employees work together to identify and address workplace hazards. California already has a version of the standard on the books. The USDA uses a similar system to ensure that meat packers address potential sources of contamination in their plants.

While a four-month delay does not sound like very much, it is likely to put OSHA behind schedule in developing the standard. Typically, OSHA’s efforts to comply with the Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act (SBREFA) involve vetting a detailed draft of a proposed rule with a Small Business Advocacy Review Panel; that's one of the next steps in this process. OSHA had planned to garner SBA Review Panel approval by June, but if the “Baseline Safety and Health Practices Survey” that sat at OIRA for more than four months awaiting approval is an important part of developing the I2P2 proposal and that proposal needs to be nearly finished before SBA review begins, it looks like the June deadline won’t be met. Based on the documentation on OIRA’s website, ERG’s final report to OSHA on the survey results won’t even be submitted until September.

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Echoes of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in Today’s Debate over Regulation

One hundred years ago today, 146 people perished in one of the nation’s worst workplace tragedies – the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in the heart of New York City. The story is gruesome, and each detail of exactly how so many people were trapped in a burning building was, and remains, a reminder of what can happen when worker safety is sacrificed in the name of profit.

Here’s the barest sketch. The Triangle Waist Factory in lower Manhattan relied on cheap, exploitable labor to produce women’s blouses – shirtwaists, as they were known. The factory occupied the 8th, 9th and 10th floors of a building at 29 Washington Place, and its employees were mostly young immigrant women, some as young as 14. They’d come to the United States for a better life, and found themselves working more than 50 hours a week, six days a week, in a non-union shop, laboring under sweatshop conditions. (This, of course, was before unions had essentially created the concept of “the weekend.”)

On March 25, 1911, at about 4:45 p.m., fire broke out on the 8th floor and spread quickly to floors above, fueled by piles of fabric scraps. The factory had no alarm system and no sprinklers, although such technology was available. Workers were quickly trapped, not just by the flames but by doors locked by company officials worried that workers would abscond with fabric if allowed to leave by any but the main door. The fire escapes did not reach to the ground, and eventually collapsed under the weight of the many escapees. A heroic elevator operator made several rescue runs but had to abandon the effort when the elevator’s guide rails buckled under the heat. Responding fire trucks lacked ladders that could reach the victims. Faced with the prospect of being burned alive, many of the workers chose instead to leap to their deaths. 

Watching in shock that day was a young social worker, Frances Perkins, who would go on to champion a successful crusade for safer working conditions. (She would later become the first female Cabinet member, serving as FDR’s Labor Secretary.)

In a spot-on piece in Wednesday’s Washington Post, columnist Harold Meyerson observes that industry rose in opposition to Perkins’ proposed reforms, offering arguments that ring familiar even today. Proposed fire code reforms would cause “the wiping out of industry in this state,” said the Associated Industries of New York, and were “absolutely needless and useless,” said a lawyer for the Real Estate Board of New York City. The president of the Real Estate Board argued that, “To my mind this is all wrong….The experience of the past proves conclusively that the best government is the least possible government, that the unfettered initiative of the individual is the force that makes a country great and that this initiative should never be bound…”

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Cleanup Worker Safety Planning Must Not Get Forgotten in Fallout from BP Spill

Lizzie Grossman has a nice post over at The Pump Handle highlighting how the National Contingency Plan for major oil spills has significant gaps, which left government agencies and cleanup workers in the Gulf scrambling to figure out the right training programs and the best ways to protect workers' health and safety in the days, weeks, and months following the BP spill.

But, as Lizzie points out, one of the most powerful advocates for fixing the NCP -- the National Spill Commission -- has left the issue of cleanup workers' by the wayside:

Occupational health issues for responders are simply not [the] focus of the Commission's review: OSHA is only mentioned twice in the body of the report. The role of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) in the response is not described at all, nor is the health impacts roster maintained by the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals. The body of the report mentions neither the National Institutes of Health nor the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Tens of thousands of people participated in cleanup efforts last summer. Despite the sweltering heat and some areas overrun with heavy equipment, no workers died and injury and illness rates were relatively low. Long-term health impacts of cleanup work will be more difficult to measure. But OSHA, NIEHS, and NIOSH deserve recognition for their work.

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Republicans Propose Unconscionable Cuts for OSHA

On March 23, 2005, the worst industrial accident in 15 years killed 15 workers and injured more than 180 others as highly flammable liquids from a distillation tower were vented directly to the ground and were ignited by a spark at the huge BP Corporation Refinery in Texas City, Texas. A two-year investigation by the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSHIB) concluded that the BP Texas City refinery was “an extremely dangerous workplace by any objective standard.” An “Independent Review Panel” that BP assembled to investigate the explosion and BP’s safety practices throughout all of its operations issued a similarly devastating critique. 

The CSHIB also found that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) had acted irresponsibly. The facility was subject to OSHA’s 1992 process safety management standard, but plant managers had failed to implement many of its requirements.  The standard itself was out of date, but, lacking the resources to update it, the agency substituted ineffective guidance documents and voluntary outreach programs.  Even though the BP plant was the third largest refinery in the United States, OSHA had never undertaken a comprehensive, planned process safety inspection at the facility. Indeed, between 1995 and 2005, the agency had undertaken only nine process safety inspections in the entire country, and none of those were at refineries.

The problem was by no means limited to the BP plant. Similar explosions had killed or seriously injured workers at five other refineries and chemical plants during the preceding seven years, but OSHA had lacked the resources to step up its enforcement efforts.

Indeed, for most of its 40-plus years, OSHA has lacked sufficient resources to protect American workers from irresponsible employers who all too often treat their employees as expendable pieces of equipment.

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