The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA’s) long-established PPE rule specifies the minimum design standards for various forms of PPE.

For instance, section 1926.100(b) specifies, “Helmets for the protection of employees against impact and penetration of falling and flying objects shall meet the specifications contained in American National Standards Institute, Safety Requirements for Industrial Head Protection.”

Unfortunately, that ANSI standard was adopted in 1969! Even if one wanted, no construction employer can buy a hardhat today in the U.S. that meets this standard. It is outdated, obsolete and irrelevant.

Of course, OSHA does not want to be irrelevant, but keeping up with technical advances is hard work and evaluations can be years in the making. OSHA’s budget is limited, and it does not have the time or expertise to determine the appropriate design standard for each piece of PPE. What can the agency do?

Under the philosophy of the current OSHA leadership, the agency does not want to tell anyone that they have to do anything (unless the pressure of an exposé makes it absolutely necessary). The agency would rather provide some guidance and trust that everyone has good intentions and will do the right thing. Yet, standards that are seriously outdated and irrelevant cast doubt on both the agency’s professionalism and its authority.

Trying to come up with a simple way to handle PPE technical advances, OSHA proposed last fall to delete references to PPE consensus standards in the present rule and replace them with a requirement that employers provide PPE that “meets good design standards,” augmented by a non-mandatory appendix of standards adopted by various groups.

Sweep the problem of providing specific, yet current guidance into an appendix, a non-mandatory one at that! But, what are “good design standards?” That is a reasonable question. They could be any of the specific standards that constantly evolve under the auspices of ANSI and the International Safety Equipment Association, or they might be the standards adopted, say, in Canada, Europe or Australia, that are somewhat different but still of high quality. More products are arriving from China. Are Chinese standards good enough? OSHA’s imprecision leaves room for maneuver and for conflicting claims that “good design standards” were or were not followed in specific situations that resulted in on-the-job injuries. Law suits are born from such imprecision.

The fact that no one likes being held to a vague standard was proven by the reaction of the broad spectrum of construction industry forces to OSHA’s proposal. Everyone – unions, contractors and manufacturers – condemned the OSHA plan in testimony in early December.

However, offering a hand to OSHA, the stakeholders independently offered similar solutions to OSHA’s dilemma. They recommended that OSHA adopt a simple “direct-to-final-rule” procedure to keep its regulations current with designs developed through manufacturer research and standards adopted by ANSI. Just track the evolving standards from the private sector, the stakeholders suggested, and put updated, specific references into the government regulation every five years. With a direct-to-final-rule procedure, the agency can state its intention to incorporate the updates and, if there are no significant objections, they can be adopted.

It is not clear if OSHA will accept this suggestion. It might have come up with the same plan on its own, but didn’t. Does the direct-to-final-rule require too much evaluative work for the agency’s staff? In OSHA’s mind, does it impose too strict a rule on construction employers?

It is pretty bad when even those who are regulated have to explain the need and method of regulation to the regulators. Apparently, that is the level to which OSHA standards development has now sunk.

[Steve Clark]