by Elizabeth Grossman

“With what’s on the table in Washington now, you may think the technical phrase is ‘job-killing OSHA standards’ but standards save lives,” said David Michaels, Assistant Secretary of Labor of Occupational Safety and Health, in his address to the American Industrial Hygiene Association meeting in Portland, Oregon on May 18th. “OSHA doesn’t kill jobs. OSHA stops jobs from killing workers.”

To occupational health and safety professionals, this is not news – and it’s a message that Michaels has taken on the road over the past year – but in the current anti-regulatory political climate, this message is noteworthy.

“I think the evidence is very clear that OSHA standards save lives and also save jobs,” said Michaels. He pointed to the history of OSHA standards beginning with exposure limits on asbestos, benzene, cotton dust, lead, and vinyl chloride in the 1970s, grain-handling, evacuation, and trenching standards in the 1980s, and continuing with the 1991 blood-borne pathogen and 2001 needle-stick standards. (This OSHA timeline describes these and other standards.) While celebrating OSHA’s achievements over the past 40 years – “The basic idea that workers have a right to a safe workplace wasn’t there before OSHA,” Michaels noted – he also acknowledged how much still needs to be done to ensure workplace safety, including the issuing of new standards, many long overdue.

“Standards are the game-changers,” said Michaels, who noted that industry has often opposed a new standard saying it would be detrimentally costly – he used the example of the 1974 vinyl chloride standard – but later found compliance hurt neither competitiveness nor jobs. While fully understanding the health hazards of a chemical like vinyl chloride is a matter of some complexity, two of the other workplace hazards that surfaced as concerns during Michaels’ talk and in the 90-minute long question-and-answer session that followed later in the morning are strikingly simple: dust and noise. What was also striking, at least to me, is how difficult it has been to enact regulations to ensure what would seem to be easily accomplished safety measures.

Old hazards, long struggles
To dramatize how long it can take to achieve a standard that truly safeguards workers’ health, Michaels showed a film clip from 1937, in which Labor Secretary Frances Perkins – whose portrait Maine Governor Paul LePage recently banished from its place of honor in the state capitol – speaks forcefully of the need to protect workers from the dangers of silica and rock dust. In those days, Michaels reminded the audience, company officials wore respiratory protection but workers didn’t. “There were thousands of cases of silicosis about 75 years ago,” he said. But the hazard is still with us, he continued, and there’s very convincing evidence of its association with lung cancer, renal disease, rheumatoid arthritis, scleroderma, and other autoimmune diseases.

“Blasting, foundries, machine shops, auto repair, dental labs, ceramics, lots of activities create respirable particles. There’s lots of silica out there and we know we can control it,” said Michaels. “I think it’s time to issue a silica standard that is actually preventative.”

“Our existing PEL (personal exposure limit) is not protective,” said Michaels. “To say it is outdated is generous.” States have progressed far beyond federal OSHA in regulating silica-dust exposure. California regulations require water and local exhaust systems to control this hazardous dust, while in New Jersey dry cutting and grinding is simply banned, he explained. “It’s time for OSHA to catch up with them.”

To that end, OSHA would be issuing a proposal for a new silica standard in the next few months, said Michaels, adding that the agency was also thinking about a comprehensive health standard for crystalline silica. Michael P. Wilson, incoming director of UC Berkeley’s Labor Occupational Health Program, asked if emergency workers, who often have to cut concrete in the aftermath of disasters, would be covered by any new standards.

During the question-and-answer session Michaels was asked about another preventable workplace hazard for which a standard of increased stringency is long overdue: noise. Earlier this year, OSHA withdrew a proposed interpretation of its noise standard. To the question, “When is OSHA going to review its hearing conservation standard?” Michaels responded by saying, “That is an area of great frustration and sadness.” There are reasonable and inexpensive ways to prevent noise and hearing loss, said Michaels, pointing out that not having a more protective hearing standard was actually a competitive disadvantage for the U.S. “If a U.S manufacturer wants a quieter machine it will likely buy one from Europe. European machines are quieter than American machines because they have to be.”

Another OSHA proposed requirement, withdrawn earlier this year, that Michaels said would be revisited is the requirement that employers specify recording workplace injuries and illnesses specify which of these are musculoskeletal in nature. Current figures on illness and injuries are not very good, said Michaels, and this would improve information gathering. Michaels also said he hoped to discourage employers from offering incentives for keeping recordable injury rates low, which often translate to workers not reporting the injuries they receive on the job (Michaels called it one of his “pet peeves,” and noted that withholding benefits from a worker who reports an injury violates the OSHA Act. )

Michaels’ message was clear. What is not clear is how any new OSHA standards will fare politically at a time when so much attention is focused on short-term profits.

Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Salon, The Washington Post, The Nation, Mother Jones, Grist, and the Huffington Post. Chasing Molecules was chosen by Booklist as one of the Top 10 Science & Technology Books of 2009 and won a 2010 Gold Nautilus Award for investigative journalism.

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