OSHA Tries to Look Busy

By David Michaels

As regular readers of this blog know, worker health advocates have been pushing for regulation of diacetyl, an artificial butter flavoring chemical that’s been linked to bronchiolitis obliterans, a terrible, sometimes fatal lung disease.

Today, in anticipation of two Congressional hearings and a major newspaper article due out tomorrow, OSHA has announced that it will take its first steps to protect diacetyl-exposed workers. Unfortunately, OSHA has announced it will ignore thousands of workplaces where workers are being exposed with no protection, and will focus only on microwave popcorn factories, the one set of workplaces where NIOSH has already been helping employers address the problem. So when OSHA inspectors go out, they will likely find the problem under control in the popcorn factories. And more workers in the remainder of the food industry will get sick.


Last July, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters petitioned OSHA to issue an emergency temporary standard to protect workers from diacetyl and to begin the process of protecting workers from other hazardous flavoring chemicals. They based their request on numerous studies showing a link between occupational exposure to diacetyl and the lung disease bronchiolitis obliterans (sometimes called “flavoring workers lung” or “popcorn workers lung”), as well as animal studies showing that even relatively brief exposure to the chemical can be fatal.

That should have been enough to get OSHA to focus, but apparently it wasn’t. But this week, with two hearings scheduled in Congress to see whether OSHA is doing enough to protect workers, OSHA has issued a news release trumpeting “U.S. Department of Labor’s OSHA announces focus on health hazards of microwave popcorn butter flavorings containing diacetyl.” OSHA is trying to look busy, but it’s not going to work.

Here’s the first part of the news release:

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) today announced that it is initiating a National Emphasis Program (NEP) to address the hazards and control measures associated with working in the microwave popcorn industry where butter flavorings containing diacetyl are used.

“We recognize that there are potential occupational health hazards associated with butter flavorings containing diacetyl,” said Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Edwin G. Foulke Jr. “Under this program, OSHA will target inspection resources to those workplaces where we anticipate the highest employee exposures to these hazards.”

The NEP applies to all workplaces where butter flavored microwave popcorn is being manufactured.

The emphasis on the microwave popcorn industry is misguided at best. Although many of the early cases of bronchiolitis obliterans were identified in plants that manufactured microwave popcorn, cases have been identified among workers that manufacture and mix flavorings, as well as in bakeries and snack food factories. (See this review (PDF), from NIOSH’s Dr. Kathleen Kreiss, for citations for these and other cases.) OSHA is not planning to visit any of these factories.

The news release goes on:

In January of 2006, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) released an investigative report on a microwave popcorn production facility. Several employees from this facility were diagnosed with bronchiolitis obliterans – a severe obstructive lung disease. Following a number of lung function tests and air sampling, NIOSH determined that inhalation exposure to butter flavoring chemicals is a risk for occupational lung disease. OSHA’s National Emphasis Program will provide direction on inspection targeting and procedures, methods of controlling the hazard and compliance assistance.

This makes it sound like NIOSH just discovered the threat, and that OSHA has responded quickly. Unfortunately for the many workers who’ve contracted lung disease over the past several years, that’s simply not the case.

As part of our work on diacetyl, we’ve compiled a timeline of major events. In 2000, the Missouri Department of Health notified OSHA that ten workers from one popcorn plant had been diagnosed with bronchiolitis obliterans, and they requested that OSHA inspect the facility. An OSHA inspector visitor the plant, but the samples he collected couldn’t be analyzed by OSHA’s laboratory. The inspector “determined the company to be in compliance” and closed the case file.

Fortunately, NIOSH did follow up on the Missouri case report. It conducted a series of important studies on diacetyl, and studied air and employee health at the Missouri plant. The investigators found that plant employees’ rates of chronic cough and shortness of breath were 2.6 times the national average, adjusting for both smoking and age. Twice as many workers than expected reported being told by their physicians that they had asthma or chronic bronchitis, and lung function testing revealed that three times as many workers as expected had obstruction to airflow. NIOSH issued interim recommendations suggesting that all workers wear respirators pending the implementation of engineering controls to eliminate exposure to the artificial butter flavoring, and the investigators reported these results in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report and the New England Journal of Medicine in 2002. (The MMWR article came out exactly five years ago this week).

So, OSHA was alerted to cases of bronchiolitis obliterans in 2000, and would have learned of results of the NIOSH’s Missouri investigation in 2002, if not earler. One could say “better late than never,” but being late in this case has meant more cases of bronchiolitis obliterans, and more workers on the lung transplant list.

Then, of course, there’s the fact that this National Emphasis Program stops short of the action that’s warranted when you’ve got a chemical that’s sickening workers, many of them young and otherwise healthy nonsmokers, so quickly – in some cases, within a year or two of starting work with butter flavoring. OSHA will be providing assistance to workplaces and focusing inspections on compliance, but this news release doesn’t mention any standards that workplaces will be required to meet. If the agency were to issue a permissible exposure limit (PEL) for diacetyl, it could require companies to reduce exposure levels. This is what the unions have asked OSHA to do.

We’d like to breathe a sigh of relief that OSHA has finally awakened and is now addressing this serious problem, but we can’t. OSHA has decided that, to avoid embarrassment, it should try to look busy. But the agency is still doing its best to avoid doing anything that will protect workers from diacetyl.

David Michaels heads the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP) and is Professor and Associate Chairman in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services.

Comments

  1. #1 argonaut
    January 7, 2009

    I’ll tell you my experience with OSHA. As far as I am concerned OSHA should not even exist anymore, it is a waste of taxpayer’s money.
    A few months back I called OSHA’s main office in Puerto Rico to denounce the dangerous practices and working environment existent in my workplace. I called OSHA because after following the procedures to correct problems laid out by the company I work for, and trying to get them corrected, I was targeted and was victim of many attacks and discrimination. After 2 years of trying to get the workplace to comply, what I only got was an organized and persistent mobbing attack on my person and my reputation.
    The first time I called OSHA I explained my complains on the phone, and after 3 more calls I was told that I was speaking to the wrong person. She gave me a number to call as I was told that because of the location of my workplace, it belong to a different office. During all of those conversations it seemed to me that the there was a lot of emphasis made on if I was sure I wanted to make the complains official.
    I personally visited the area office and made my complaints, which were the following:
    a high in various areas
    _The presence of great quantities of toxic mold and mildew in various areas of the AC system, contaminating public and back of the house areas, this was accompanied with pictures and much documentation generated during the past couple of years from my contacts with the responsible parties.
    _The dangerous practice of misuse of ladders in an area where there was a t least a 20′ fall.
    _The requirement of some of us to change parts and/or repair electric appliances, replace outlets and perform other types of electrical work prohibited by law if not certified. Also reported that there was not a certified electrician in property.
    _The negation of the employer to provide steel toe boots as part of the safety equipment required by law.
    _Discrimination, targeting and mobbing against my person.
    OSHA did take my complains and seemed to be working on investigating the problems. I was told that the inspection and safety issues would be handled by them but the discrimination allegations would be referred to their main office and they would get in touch with me.
    Time went by and I heard through the grapevine that OSHA was conducting an investigation. I never seen nor was I interviewed by anyone, furthermore one day when I was working I saw the procedure implanted by the department head for OSHA’s interviews. Which was as follows:
    The interviewer was taken to an office while in the shop the director gathered the ones to be interviewed one by one in a clear intimidation practice, he stayed there all of the time until the interviews were finish. So the ones interviewed were under a lot of pressure not to speak and only the ones that the director hand picked were called, not me of course.
    I had a coworker approach me and tell me that the investigator from OSHA was telling the director what to write in the safety equipment requirements so he would not be obligated to provide the steel toe boots. It is very curious that in the report sent to me by OSHA it says that they were not obligated to provide us with the boots and that they were not required, but in the same report it says that during inspection they noticed the “deficiency” of the employer not providing steel toe boots to the employees…???? According to the same report it is determined that employees that handle equipment or parts weighting between 25 and 110 lbs need to be assigned a pair of steel toe boots. In a recent job description which I posses the employer clearly has as a requirement for other positions the same weight loads as the ones that OSHA protected, why not the others? is it because I reported it?
    It is interesting that from the original complain of the areas with mold, mildew, humidity problems they were all reduced to 1 area that is the one that figures in the report. And of course there was no evidence of discrimination, at least not found in the whole 2 weeks that was given to the investigator, who had to split herself into three to comply with the deadlines set by law.
    Not to extend this post to unreadable lenghts let me summarize with the following. OSHA seems to work for the employers, even though they say that they take an impartial stand it is very clear to me, that did not happen in my case.
    The result from all of these is that I am operationally out of a job (is just a matter of time), my health has suffered, and anybody that ever thought of complaining or reporting issues to OSHA will just not do it.
    I suggest that OSHA is taken out of the government’s payroll and be transfered to the corporations public relations department. It is important that the laws in the workplace are respected or we will continue to see principles and money go out the window as it is very clearly occurring in the financial world, don not think that all of this things are not related, it is called impunity. So help us God as the mercenary corporations project our future into more human misery. And finally so all of you that care know, the corporation responsible for all of what you read previously and more, is the famous Ritz Carlton Co.
    What saddens me the most is the failure of the human beings involved that could had stood up to these extreme corporate practices did not, even when their job was to enforce the laws. For all that still think that OSHA is there to protect you, think again, I don’t want you to go through what I have been going through for just wanting to do the right thing.

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