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Washington Update

Washington Update: Regulatory momentum

December 19, 2013

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After a seemingly inactive period regarding new standards, OSHA appears to have gathered some regulatory momentum. Since the August publication of a proposed rule on crystalline silica exposure, the agency has been steadily pushing other rules. Here’s a brief overview.

Injury reporting

The most recent notable rule being pursued – as of press time – is a proposal to improve the tracking of workplace injuries and illnesses by requiring many employers to electronically submit quarterly injury reports, which OSHA will make publicly available. Employers already are required to keep injury reports.

From the outside, it appears that employers would not face extra burdens. Additional injury data acquired on a timelier basis could lead to faster responses to new injury trends, potentially reducing the number of workers getting hurt on the job.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses – which is based on records kept by employers – has been criticized for not being accurate. However, this data collection will address only part of the problem. Although it’s good to know what injuries are occurring and where, it’s a lagging indicator. Leading indicators, such as near-miss reports, are considered by many safety professionals to be a more useful tool in the prevention of workplace injuries.

I suspect some people will be nervous about submitting data for public release (although employee names will not be included), and worry OSHA will use the data to target specific employers.

I don’t consider these issues very worrisome – OSHA doesn’t have the resources to respond to every incident, and specific employer injury data could spur companies to become safer. Regardless, OSHA likely will face stiff challenges on this rulemaking.

New PSM standard?

On Dec. 3, the Office of Management and Budget completed a review of a draft of a proposed rule change to OSHA’s Process Safety Management Standard intended to address gaps in safety coverage. The OMB review came after the issuance of a presidential executive order calling on government agencies to improve chemical facility safety and security in the wake of recent disasters, but the agency announced the proposal in its spring semiannual regulatory agenda.

An abstract published by OMB says the rule could clarify aspects of the PSM standard and expand its coverage. This falls close to what the executive order directed: Determine if the current PSM standard can and should be expanded to address additional substances and hazards. Although OSHA began this rulemaking process before the executive order, one has to wonder if the order helped move things along.

A request for information, in which OSHA seeks stakeholder input – was issued Dec. 9. It’s hard to say much on this rule because nothing has been published publicly outside the RFI, but given the media and high-level political attention paid to chemical facility safety, this is likely to be a rule that sees a push.

Electrical rule

A final rule, expected soon, would update OSHA’s construction industry electrical standard and revise its general industry standard so maintenance of electric power transmission and distribution installation have the same requirements as similar work in construction.

Unlike what will probably be seen with the injury reporting rule, this final rule should receive relatively broad support, including from labor and industry. (See ‘Imminent’ electrical rule welcome, industry rep says) Provided no major changes are made from the previously published notice of proposed rulemaking and the final rule, the rule should move forward without much opposition. At press time, the final rule had not been published.

Rule in waiting

Despite some headway on rulemaking, one major standard OSHA is pursuing has made no recent progress. OSHA administrator David Michaels’ No. 1 priority – an Injury and Illness Prevention Program rule – has not made much noise since the Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act panel process began in early 2013.

An NPRM is scheduled for publication in September, according to OSHA’s most recent regulatory agenda. When it’s published, expect a hearty debate – and a big fight.

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

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