Responding to a letter initiated by Rick Engler of the New Jersey Work Environment Council, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) agreed on January 25 to take steps to institutionalize worker and union involvement in workplace inspections conducted under the Clean Air Act.
“The old procedure was a remnant of the last Administration’s policy,” says LIUNA General President Terence M. O’Sullivan, who co-signed Engler’s letter, along with a host of labor, labor-related, environmental, justice, health, public interest and occupational safety and health organizations. “It is a positive sign that the EPA acted immediately to correct the problem after we pointed it out. Now, in chemical facilities where Laborers work, we expect the agency to make sure our members and business agents have the same opportunity to offer safety and health suggestions and help evaluate corrective measures as does management. Not only will this enhance our members’ safety, it will help protect people who live or work near these facilities.”
The December 3, 2009, letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson noted the failure of the agency to offer workers and union representatives a chance to participate in inspections intended to prevent facilities that use “extremely hazardous substances” (EHS) from accidental discharges into the workplace or neighboring communities. More than 13,000 facilities in over 200 industries in the United States use above-threshold quantities of EHS.
Section 112(r)(6)(L) of the Clean Air Act, signed by the first President Bush in 1990, is explicit on this point: “Whenever the Administrator or the Board conducts an inspection of a facility pursuant to this subsection, employees and their representatives shall have the same rights to participate in such inspections as provided in the Occupational Safety and Health Act [29 U.S.C. 651 et seq.].”
The letter noted that the EPA does not mention this requirement in its detailed guidance document for conducting on-site audits, yet it directs inspectors to meet with management personnel both before and after an audit.
New Jersey – home to a large portion of the nation’s chemical industry – is the only state that accepted delegated authority to implement the participation provision. With the EPA’s support, it has required union and worker participation since 2005. In the intervening years, union workers made numerous recommendations for safety enhancements and many were adopted. In one situation, for instance, a strobe light alarm was added at a chemical plant after the union expressed concern about inaudible leak alarms. In another, an alarm was installed outside the control room after the union pointed out that the operator would not be able to hear the inside alart when collecting samples outside. Other states apparently did not recognize that they could implement the union participation requirement, or they intentionally chose not to get the union workforce involved. Now, the EPA, itself, will request union participation.