Senators Press OSHA on Diacetyl

Four U.S. Senators have written to Labor Secretary Chao and OSHA Asst. Secretary Foulke expressing serious concern that “OSHA has failed to make significant progress in addressing the continuing hazards” of diacetyl.  They asked for a response by October 8 to four simple questions, including a list of inspections conducted as part of OSHA’s national emphasis program on diacetyl.

It was nearly 10 years ago when an alert physician in Missouri linked rare cases of the lung disease bronchiolitis obliterans to his patients’ workplace exposure at a microwave popcorn manufacturing plant.  Soon after, the Missouri Department of Health (MDOH) contacted OSHA and NIOSH.  Now, dozens of workers have been identified with the debilitating disease and others diagnosed with other respiratory impairments.  OSHA previously told the Senators that it “intends to propose a permanent standard addressing the hazards of flavoring containing diacetyl,” but the wait continues.

In their September 24 letter, Senators Brown (D-OH), Kennedy (D-MA), McCaskill (D-MO) and Murray (D-WA), noted that OSHA rejected a petition filed in July 2006 by workers who asked for an emergency temporary standard on diacetyl for all exposed workers. 

“Instead of advancing a standard, OSHA has continued to pursue its National Emphasis Program (NEP), focusing on the microwave popcorn industry–despite the fact that most of the industry has abandoned the use of diacetyl.”

The Senators asked DOL to provide the following information in order to assess the adequacy of OSHA’s response to the health threat created by workers’ exposure to the artificial butter-flavoring agent:

  • a list of inspections conducted pursuant to the NEP and the outcome of those inspections
  • the status of the standard setting process, including results from any technical feasibility studies performed or requested by DOL
  • a timetable for completing the standard
  • an analysis of whether the DOL’s proposed rule on risk assessment will delay issuance of a final standard.

OSHA announced its NEP on diacetyl in April 2007 and OSHA’s Area Offices were directed to use the following guidance to identify plants in which workers are manufacturing or processing microwave popcorn.  Specifically:

“A listing of facilities identified as manufacturing microwave popcorn is included on the Directorate of Enforcement Programs Intranet Web site. All such establishments within the Area Office’s (A.O.) jurisdiction will be scheduled for inspection.  NOTE: This list is for internal scheduling purposes only and shall not be released to the public.”

“Sites not included on the DEP Intranet listing of known establishments, but known to the A.O. to be manufacturers of microwaveable popcorn, shall be added to the inspection targeting list for that A.O. and scheduled for inspection.”

The list of industrial code classifications (SIC, NAICS) for establishments which may be using diacetyl in their manufacturing process include:

-Popcorn packaged except popped, as well as manufacturing of prepared foods (2099, 311340)
-Flavoring extracts, and flavoring syrups (2087, 311942)
-Popcorn balls, candy covered popcorn (2096, 311919)
-Candy and other candy covered popcorn products (2064, 311330)
-Breakfast foods/non chocolate Confectionary Manufacturing (2043, 311340)
-Other miscellaneous food Manufacturing (2099, 311999)
-Confectionary and Nut Stores (2068, 445292)

OSHA’s directive to its Area Office seems quite explicit that the emphasis inspections should only be scheduled at facilities involved in microwave popcorn production.

After the Senators have a few days to examine the documents provided by OSHA about the National Emphasis Program, I hope the larger public (us) get a chance to decide for ourselves whether or not OSHA’s NEP accomplished what it set out to do:

“to identify and reduce or eliminate exposures to butter-flavoring chemicals used in microwave popcorn manufacturing facilities.”

For a slew of information and background documents on efforts to protect workers’ health from diacetyl exposure, see the case study on the SKAPP website.