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Published: October, 2020; Vol 17, Num 6

 

The New OSHA Standards Needed to Protect Construction Laborers

The results of the upcoming presidential election will shape our country for years to come. LIUNA has enthusiastically endorsed Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Kamala Harris as the candidates committed to the issues that matter most to LIUNA members and their families, including infrastructure investment, prevailing wages and collective bargaining, pension and immigration reform and a comprehensive energy policy. For more information, visit www.liunavotes2020.org.

The outcome of the upcoming presidential election is also likely to affect the agenda at many federal agencies, including OSHA. There are major gaps in OSHA standards that need to be filled to better protect LIUNA members and all construction workers on the job. Below are some of the most pressing issues that should be at the top of federal OSHA’s safety and health agenda.

  • COVID-19. During this pandemic, several states have moved to protect workers from COVID-19 on the job. Virginia issued an emergency temporary standard. A dozen other governors have issued executive orders to protect workers, but in most states there are no enforceable protections. Issuing an emergency standard to protect workers from COVID-19 and other infectious diseases – especially workers in healthcare environments – should be a high priority for OSHA in 2021.
  • Heat. This summer has been one of the hottest on record. Temperatures in Southern California are reaching 121°F, in September! While a few state OSHA programs have heat-related standards, there are no federal standards requiring employers to address heat on the job. If workers have to do their jobs in high-heat conditions, they need protections that mandate water, rest and shade.
  • Chemical hazards. Industry lobbyists have been successful in slowing OSHA’s review process to a crawl, resulting in standards taking 10-20 years (e.g., silica) to be issued. A new approach is needed. One model might be a quicker rulemaking process using consensus standards like those released by ANSI/ASSP A10 and ASTM. Another option is a “control banding” approach to chemical safety that would group chemicals together by hazard and regulate safety by exposure. This would circumvent the costly and time-consuming review process needed to address individual chemicals.
  • Noise. OSHA’s noise standard is almost as old as the agency itself and we’ve known for decades how inadequate it is. Over a quarter of workers exposed to current allowable limits will suffer hearing loss. NIOSH recommended a significant improvement (changing from a 90 dB limit to 85 dB and from a 5 dB doubling rate to 3 dB), but it was never adopted. As a result, thousands of workers lose their hearing every year. OSHA should finally fix the noise standard by lowering the limits to NIOSH recommendations. It can start by extending coverage of its hearing conservation rule to the construction industry, which is currently exempt.
  • Manual handling. While injury rates have dropped, about a third of injuries resulting in time away from work are still caused by sprains and strains, mostly due to manual materials handling. Twenty years ago, OSHA issued an ergonomics standard that was almost immediately overturned by Congress. A narrower standard focused on manual materials handling could help address this issue. Reducing risk for back injuries and other serious musculoskeletal disorders that are often career-ending would also reduce the need for prescription opioid use among construction workers.
  • Training and education requirements. Practically every OSHA standard requires some level of worker training. This is the one strength OSHA has – broad acceptance of its workplace training protocols and guidance. More state programs are requiring construction workers to have OSHA 10 and 30 hour courses, but a federal requirement would raise the bar for everyone. Another gap in many OSHA standards is an emphasis on supervisor training. Supervisors set the tone for safety on every worksite. Supervisor safety training should include requirements to learn many of the “soft skills” that are critical to a safe worksite, like how to communicate effectively about safety, how to encourage workers to speak up and how to reward that behavior.

By setting new standards, OSHA levels the playing field for the responsible employers who are already taking extra steps to protect workers. We should always remember that OSHA standards are minimum guidelines. They are something most employers shoot for, many surpass and some choose to ignore. There are still a number of major hazards faced by LIUNA members and all construction workers that could be improved  by new or updated federal OSHA standards. 

[Scott Schneider]