OSHA is rightly focused on preventing the 5,000-plus deaths that occur in the workplace each year, about 1,000 in construction alone. Yet, many additional workers – an estimated ten times as many – die each year from occupational illnesses.

Long-Time Problem

“OSHA has had a particularly difficult time addressing health hazards,” says LIUNA General President Terence M. O’Sullivan. “While the agency is edging forward with new health standards for silica, diacetyl and infectious diseases, the continuing problems in other important areas suggest that it is time to take a comprehensive look at how health hazards might be more effectively addressed.”

Alternate description

LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan

In terms of chemical hazards, the agency’s permissible exposure limits (PELs) are 40 years old, and the updating process is difficult, if not impossible, though OSHA has been working on the problem (see Resolving the Decades Long PEL Debacle).

Physical hazards, such as noise, have also been difficult to address. OSHA’s noise standard is hopelessly out of date, and its hearing conservation requirements still do not cover construction workers.  Unfortunately, the agency recently dropped development of a construction hearing conservation standard from its regulatory agenda. Meanwhile, thousands of workers suffer serious hearing loss each year, more than are killed on the job.

Heat stress is another health hazard that OSHA has been unable to address through regulations. While California has promulgated a heat stress rule, OSHA has not moved forward on a national standard.

Enforcement is also problematic in construction where the workplace is constantly changing and jobsites are temporary. If an OSHA hygienist comes to a jobsite prepared to sample for silica, noise or lead, but, because of the weather or scheduling problems, the expected operation is not taking place, the inspection cannot go forward. This is one reason that health hazard inspections comprise only five percent of construction inspections.

New Approaches

A basic requirement of effective health risk management is recognition of the hazards. For chemical hazards, OSHA is moving ahead by adopting the Globally Harmonized System. Congress has also introduced new legislation (the pSafe Chemicals Act of 2010) to give the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) more power to test and regulate toxic chemicals, the first update in the Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA) in more than 30 years. The hazards of chemicals should be transparent, and everyone should be fully aware of the hazards, including buyers who make purchasing decisions for contractors.

Once hazards are known and transparent, an attempt should be made to substitute safer chemicals for toxic ones. This is the philosophy behind the “green chemistry” movement and such groups as the Toxics Use Reduction Institute in Massachusetts as well as the Pharos Project, which publishes a database of the toxicity of various building materials and their alternatives. OSHA should promote and help encourage the substitution of safer products whenever possible.

For noise exposures, quieter products and tools can be purchased. Many communities have noise rules which force employers to use quieter equipment (see pNoise in the City). Also, some employers like NASA have very active “buy quiet” programs which encourage and assist buyers in selecting quieter equipment. The EPA has the authority, under the Quiet Communities Act of 1976, to regulate noise sources, such as medium and heavy trucks. OSHA should work with the EPA to reactivate this noise regulation program and move forward on an equipment labeling requirement as well. The federal government, as a whole, could adopt a “buy quiet” program to spur demand for quieter products and greater transparency.

Where toxic chemicals or other health hazards cannot be completely mitigated, the workplace should be designed to minimize the risks. NIOSH has an active Prevention through Design program. OSHA could partner with NIOSH to promote Prevention through Design and urge designers to minimize health risks (e.g., through green chemistry) as well as safety hazards. Throughout the manufacturing and installation process, products should be safer for the workers, not just for consumers.

New health standards should focus less on setting exposure limits and more on controls. In construction, this is particularly important, and we have seen a move in this direction with the OSHA asbestos and lead standards and, now, with the proposed silica standard. When we know what controls are effective and can mandate their use, compliance is simplified for contractors, the amount of sampling is minimized and enforcement is easier. This approach was recently taken in New Jersey and California where controls (wet methods and local exhaust) were mandated for all concrete and masonry cutting operations with no reference to exposure limits.

Many of these ignored hazards could be addressed through the development of an injury and illness prevention program (I2P2) standard, as is currently being developed at OSHA. Hazards like heat stress, where OSHA has no regulations, are well recognized and would clearly need to be identified and addressed in any I2P2 where workers are in hot environments. This might be more effective than trying to set a new heat stress standard or using the general duty clause for heat stress problems.

Finally, says O’Sullivan, “OSHA could do more to promote the development of a ‘health culture.’ While ‘safety culture’ – developing a pervasive awareness of and attention to safety throughout an organization – has gotten a lot of attention over the years, health issues haven’t been part of this equation. Beyond regulation, OSHA needs to employ every means available, including social marketing, to reconfigure industry consciousness and gain control of these hazards.”

[Scott Schneider is the LHSFNA’s Director of Occupational Safety and Health.]