By David Michaels

Regular readers of this blog are probably aware of the many workplace hazards that OSHA has failed to address, including silica, beryllium, and, of course, diacetyl – the artificial butter-flavoring chemical that’s associated with severe lung disease in workers at flavoring, food, and microwave popcorn plants. (Click here for our past posts on the subject.)

Today, Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey has introduced legislation that would force OSHA to issue a standard protecting workers exposed to diacetyl. We fully support the bill, but the fact that it is needed at all highlights OSHA’s tragic failure to safeguard the health and safety of American workers.

H.R. 2693 would give OSHA 90 days to issue an interim final standard that would include measures to minimize workers’ diacetyl exposure, and two years to issue a final standard containing a permissible exposure limit and controlling exposure to diacetyl to the lowest feasible level. Some at the agency may complain that this timeline is too short, but quick action is warranted when a clearly identified hazard is leaving workers with a debilitating illness, in some cases after only a year or two of exposure.

It’s also useful to remember that OSHA has had several opportunities over the past years to address this problem, and has instead chosen to ignore it. Here are a few items from the diacetyl timeline:

• May 2000: Missouri Department of Health notifies OSHA that ten workers from one popcorn plant have bronchiolitis obliterans and asks OSHA to inspect the facility. An OSHA inspector visits the plant, but since OSHA has no standard, the inspector leaves without issuing a citation.

• August – December 2000: NIOSH investigates Missouri microwave popcorn facility; findings indicate that workers exposed to flavorings at the microwave popcorn plant are at risk for developing fixed obstructive lung disease. NIOSH issues interim recommendations on ways to control worker exposure to the artificial butter flavoring.

• April 2002: Scientists from NIOSH and the Missouri Department of Health publish an article in CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report describing their investigation; the article notes that “recent reports to CDC document bronchiolitis obliterans cases in the settings of flavoring manufacture” and that “preliminary animal studies at CDC suggest severe damage to airway epithelium after inhalation exposure to high air concentrations of a butter flavoring.”

• July 2006: UFCW and the Teamsters petition OSHA to issue an emergency temporary standard to protect workers from diacetyl. Forty-two scientists and occupational health experts express support for the petition.

Over the past several weeks, pressure on OSHA has been building; the New York Times published a front-page story about OSHA’s inaction on diacetyl (which was followed by several other print and broadcast stories), and committees in the House and Senate held hearings about the agency’s activities. OSHA responded with a woefully inadequate National Emphasis Program, which will help microwave popcorn manufacturers (those who are motivated, anyway) control workers exposure. What’s needed are mandatory requirements for any manufacturer that uses diacetyl – a list that extends to manufacturers of flavoring, baked goods, and dog food.

OSHA should be able to identify and respond to hazards like diacetyl in a timely fashion. But its chosen not to, so Congress now has to tell it how to do its job.

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.