As the Department of Labor’s spring Regulatory Agenda indicates, the Obama Administration is trying to resuscitate OSHA. While the list shows promise in a number of areas, a retreat on hearing loss prevention and a further delay on silica protection are disappointing.

One example of OSHA’s restored effort occurs in July. After a nine year absence, a separate work-related musculoskeletal disorder column (MSD) will once again be a requirement for the 300 Log. This change goes into effect in January, 2011.  Restoration of this recordkeeping tool that went missing during the Bush Administration – sprains, strains and lift injuries were essentially buried amid the “all other illnesses,”” “injuries” and “repeated trauma” categories – will make it easier to identify a host of common construction problems, thus improving worksite safety and health.

OSHA is also moving forward on development of a rule requiring employers to implement an injury and illness prevention program (I2P2) tailored to the hazards of their specific workplaces. I2P2 calls for planning, instituting, evaluating and improving activities that protect employee safety and health. Currently, site safety programs are voluntary. Stakeholder meetings are in the works for I2P2.

Seventeen years after issuing a confined space standard for general industry, OSHA is closer to finalizing a rule to extend confined-space protection to construction workers. According to the Regulatory Agenda, comments OSHA has received regarding the rule will be analyzed by October. Considering how often construction workers enter manholes, pipe assemblies, ventilation ducts and tanks, it is hard to fathom why OSHA has taken so long to act. Currently, construction contractors can follow safety requirements in the general industry standard, but this is not mandatory.  A separate standard for construction is long overdue.

OSHA’s rejuvenation is unquestioned, but old attitudes die hard and, at times, cast doubt on OSHA’s commitment. For example, due to “resource constraints and other priorities,” the Hearing Conservation Program for Construction Workers has been dropped. Yet, it is no secret that a number of common construction tools – jackhammers (110-113 dBA), bulldozers (93-96 dBA) and pile drivers (120-160 dBA), for instance – are noise hazards and, further, that workers often suffer from hearing loss. A recent survey found that 60 percent of more than 3,000 construction workers employed by the U.S. Department of Energy suffer with hearing loss. OSHA’s plan to increase enforcement of standards 1926.52 and 1926.101, which are devoted to noise exposure in construction, is insufficient because these rules are outdated. While the transient nature of construction work and its labor force complicate resolution of this health and quality of life issue, it is essential that the situation be addressed.

The delay on a silica standard for construction is another disappointment in the announced agenda. Crystalline silica dust is a long-recognized health threat for construction workers engaged in highway repair, masonry, concrete work, rock drilling and tuckpointing. Silicosis and other serious, potentially fatal diseases result from exposure to silica, but OSHA has dragged its heels since beginning work on a construction-specific standard for occupational exposure to crystalline silica in 2003. Pushed back from July, OSHA now expects to issue a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) in February, 2011. It will include monitoring, medical surveillance and worker training requirements as well as a revised permissible exposure limit (PEL). The standard will be welcomed, but the NPRM delay means that for the foreseeable future, construction workers will continue to endure silica dust exposure without appropriate regulatory protection.

July is also when construction will see OSHA’s final standard for cranes and derricks. Crane accidents are responsible for an estimated 64 to 89 fatalities annually. In 2008, nine of those fatalities were in New York City alone, the result of two crane collapses that occurred within weeks of each other. The revised standard amends measures that have been in place for 30 years, taking into account changes in technology and work processes that will help prevent these deaths.

Movement toward standardized classification and labeling requirements for chemicals continues. The post hearing comments period regarding modification of OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard (HCS) to make it consistent with the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS) ends this month. The purpose of the 30-year-old standard is to prevent illness and injuries by informing workers who use hazardous chemicals of the risks they may encounter, the precautions they should take and what to do in the event of exposure. Hazard communication programs including labels, material safety sheets and training are a requirement for employers with hazardous chemicals in their workplaces. Currently, however, the information is not easily understood as it is presented with extraneous comments in outdated formats. Workers will benefit from the clearer communication that will come about when the U.S. standard is brought up to the world standard.

All in all, it is encouraging to see OSHA once again behaving as a regulator, but if it truly is resuming its role as worker protector, it must find or acquire the resources to tackle long-ignored problems, particularly those in construction. Hearing loss and crystalline silica dust exposure are pervasive and serious. It is time they moved to OSHA’s front burner.

[Janet Lubman Rathner]