If recent events are omens, 2011, rather than a year of progress, may be one of backtracking at OSHA. The agency dropped two proposals on its docket – one “temporarily” – which if approved would have made significant inroads in workplace safety and health.

MSD Reporting

They are the most common cause of workplace illnesses and injuries. Yet, in terms of recordkeeping, musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) hide in plain sight. While skin disorders, respiratory conditions, poisoning and hearing loss all have designated columns on the OSHA 300 Log, MSDs are recorded in two catch-all categories: “all other illnesses,” when the disorder is chronic as with carpal tunnel syndrome or tendinitis or “injury,” when the problem is acute or sudden like a sprain or a strain.

Alternate description

LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni

“This reporting system is flawed.  It conceals the extent of MSD injuries in our industry,” says LIUNA General Secretary-Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni, pointing out that sprains and strains account for 35 percent of all time-away-from-work injuries in construction. “We must put the safety of LIUNA members first and insist that record keeping is improved and clarified.”

Until recently, OSHA was working on the problem.  A year ago, the agency issued a Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) that called for adding a separate MSD column to the 300 Log. The proposal, withdrawn in January, was actually a restoration of a reporting requirement previously issued in 2001. Prior to that year, MSDs were included in a column for repetitive trauma disorders and noise. OSHA separated MSDs and noise into two separate columns, but under pressure from Congress and the Bush Administration, the MSD column was deleted in 2003 before the provision became effective.

David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for OSHA, said the withdrawal is temporary. He said OSHA would revisit the idea of a separate MSD column after the agency and the Small Business Administration (SBA) meet with small businesses to discuss the implications. According to the SBA and other business associations, the additional recordkeeping would be expensive with no assurance that it would enhance workplace safety. Date and time of the OSHA meeting will be announced within the next few weeks. Small businesses from around the country will participate via telephone or through a Web forum. OSHA is also considering meeting with other stakeholders and members of the public.

Noise Reinterpretation

OSHA’s decision not to pursue the separate MSD column came within days of the agency’s withdrawal of its proposed noise standard reinterpretation. The reinterpretation would have required employers who provide ear plugs or ear muffs to employees to first attempt to solve workplace noise problems with engineering and administrative controls (see I2P2, Noise Opponents Cry Wolf). Michaels said in light of the “possible costs” associated with implementing these noise control measures, OSHA would explore “other approaches.”

“It’s sad to see that this agency is bending to the will of anti-regulation lobbyists.  Failing to move forward on these proposals will not create or retain any new jobs,” says Sabitoni. “Failure to act will force us back ten years in terms of worker safety. Opposing sensible regulations only serves to perpetuate the anti-regulation ideology that was instrumental in causing this latest devastating recession. The voters clearly wanted change on these important issues that affect working men and women. Lack of safety regulation also creates an unlevel playing field for our union contractors who take safety measures seriously and bid responsibly.”

[Janet Lubman Rathner]