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Hazcom: A combustible issue

February 1, 2012

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The road to updating OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard is nearing its end, and stakeholders have been meeting with White House officials to voice their opinions on what the final rule should look like.

At press time, the Office of Management and Budget’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs was reviewing the final rule to determine its potential costs and benefits. As part of the review process, OIRA and OSHA officials have met with union and industry representatives to hear their concerns.

Although most stakeholders support the changes to the standard – which would update the existing regulation to align it with the United Nations’ Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals – some of the details revealed in the proposed rule alarm Marc Freedman, executive director of labor law policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

“If it looks like what you proposed, then you’ve got some serious problems,” Freedman said in an interview with Safety+Health.

In a Nov. 15 OIRA meeting, Freedman voiced the chamber’s concerns, most notably the inclusion of “unclassified hazards” – defined as substances that may pose a risk to workers based on scientific evidence but do not meet the criteria for any hazcom physical or health hazard categories.

He offered combustible dust as an example. Including unclassified hazards such as combustible dust in the revised rule would go beyond the scope of the standard, Freedman said, particularly as the agency is already pursuing a combustible dust standard and GHS includes neither combustible dust nor an unclassified hazards category.

“This concept is completely out of sync with the GHS system,” Freedman said. “This rulemaking cannot be used as a back door to a combustible dust rulemaking.”

Doing so, he said, could confuse both distributors who produce Safety Data Sheets and employers who would have to train their workers on the changes. Instead, Freedman said OSHA should settle on an approach to deal with combustible dust before attempting to include it in the hazcom standard.

“That’s insane,” Eric Frumin said about Freedman’s comments. “Employees need to know those warnings to know the dangers they’re working with.”

Frumin, safety and health director at the Washington-based union coalition Change to Win, stressed that combustible dust hazards are covered under the current hazcom standard, and eliminating combustible dust from the scope of the updated standard would amount to rolling back worker protections.

Along with other labor leaders, Frumin met with OIRA and OSHA on Dec. 7 to stress the importance of the rulemaking and to say that, if nothing else, existing protections should be maintained. Despite some confusion over the matter, suppliers are currently required to identify their materials as potentially combustible, according to Frumin, who said it was impossible for OSHA to anticipate every kind of hazard that should be addressed in SDSs, and the unclassified hazard category would help with that.

The category was not included in GHS, but the United Nations has been considering it. The United States does not have to wait until the U.N. makes a decision – the country can instead step up and be a leader on the matter, Frumin said.

“The U.N. process is a floor; it’s a foundation,” he said. “If the U.S. knows there are hazards that should be included, and it makes sense to change the U.N. scheme in order to do that, then the U.S. should bloody well go and adopt it and recommend it to the U.N.”

Neither Freedman nor Frumin would venture a guess as to what changes – if any – may occur for the final rule. But Frumin said he hoped the final rule would be issued soon and had the impression that OMB viewed the rule favorably. Freedman speculated that an extended review, if it were to occur, would be a signal that the Chamber of Commerce’s concerns are being seriously examined.

OIRA received the rule for review Oct. 25; the rule remained under review at press time. The process typically takes about 90 days, but recent reviews have taken significantly longer.

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

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