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Washington Update

Washington Update: Stakeholders put pressure on OSHA

September 21, 2013

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OSHA faced one particularly eventful week this past summer, as over the course of several days the agency found itself pressured by different groups to take action on certain hazards. Although the agency has not given any indication it will adopt stakeholders’ specific suggestions, some steps are being taken. But is it enough to satisfy worker safety advocates?

Chemical safety

On July 25, the Chemical Safety Board voted to designate OSHA’s response to some of the board’s recommendations, one of which is more than a decade old, as “unacceptable.” Among the recommendations:

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  • Ensuring OSHA’s Process Safety Management Standard addresses storage tanks that could become involved in a catastrophic release
  • Revising the PSM Standard to require management-of-change reviews for actions that could affect process safety

During the public meeting, several stakeholders urged OSHA to take up the recommendations. Responding to their remarks, Tom Galassi, director of OSHA’s Directorate of Enforcement Programs, said some of CSB’s recommendations are being considered. However, he emphasized that regulatory changes are not always the best option when resources are strained.

One week after the meeting, President Barack Obama issued an executive order directing OSHA to review its PSM Standard, citing the deadly April 17 fertilizer plant explosion in West, TX, and similar disasters.

Although the executive order on chemical facility hazards was met with nearly universal applause, some stakeholders have suggested it falls short. It prompts OSHA to review its PSM Standard, but does not guarantee a new rulemaking or require the adoption of CSB recommendations. Even if the agency decided an updated PSM Standard was necessary, that process could take years – and potential opposition could slow the process still further.

Nursing safety

Another issue in the spotlight is the safety of workers in the health care industry. A July 17 report from Washington-based advocacy group Public Citizen criticized OSHA and suggested the federal government is “failing” to provide health care workers with adequate protection.

According to the report, one of those failures is the lack of a standard addressing ergonomic hazards, which can lead to musculoskeletal disorders. MSDs are the leading type of injury among health care workers, the report states, and nursing aides, orderlies and attendants have a higher rate of MSDs than any other occupation.

But OSHA is not overlooking the health care industry. One day before Public Citizen released its report, OSHA announced an outreach campaign to raise MSD awareness in the health care sector. The campaign – being conducted in parts of OSHA Region 3 – aims to provide information on controlling hazards and implementing zero-lift programs. Also, about a year ago, OSHA instituted a National Emphasis Program focusing on risks facing nursing home and residential care facility employees.

Obstacles

The outreach campaign, however, fails to address Public Citizen’s chief concerns – the need for more inspections and more standards. Additionally, the NEP has issued only seven citations for unsafe ergonomic conditions in the past two years, according to Public Citizen.

The rulemaking process may be even more difficult for advocates of a health care ergonomics standard. Congress and several industry groups have staunchly fought ergonomic-related requirements, no matter how minor. In addition to vacating the original ergonomics standard OSHA promulgated early last decade, Congress has stopped recent agency attempts to collect MSD data from employers.

“It’s true, there are tremendous obstacles faced by the agency,” Taylor Lincoln, research director for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch, said during a teleconference announcing the report. The agency lacks the appropriate resources to conduct more inspections and invest in more standards development. But Lincoln expressed hope the report would change the current lack of “political momentum.”

Stakeholders pressuring for change may not receive everything they want, but as the Obama administration has likely learned by now, change can be difficult. For the nurses in pain; the chemical facility workers exposed to hazards; and the underfunded, resource-starved agency tasked with protecting them, here’s hoping the pressure continues.

The opinions expressed in “Washington Update” do not necessarily reflect those of the National Safety Council or affiliated local Chapters.

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