May 11, 2007 The Pump Handle 5Comment

By David Michaels

In the din of the recent press attention and Senate and House hearings on about OSHA’s failings, it’s easy to forget that OSHA has saved many lives, too. Some evidence on that score comes from a new paper three colleagues and I have just published in Chest (Welch LS, Haile E, Dement J, Michaels D. Change in prevalence of asbestos-related disease among sheet metal workers 1986 to 2004. Chest. 2007;131:863-9).

Before the newly formed OSHA issued its first asbestos standard in 1971, uncontrolled asbestos exposure occurred in numerous workplaces across the country. OSHA subsequently strengthened its asbestos standard several times, forcing employers to implement controls that have saved countless lives.

Evidence of the impact of OSHA’s regulation of asbestos work comes from the national study of asbestos disease in sheet metal workers, in which 18,000 members of the Sheet Metal Workers International Union were screened for asbestos disease between 1986 and 2004.

Here’s what we found: after controlling for age and smoking, the strongest predictor for chest X-ray sign of asbestos-related disease was the calendar year in which the worker began sheet metal work. We concluded that the results suggest “that the efforts to reduce asbestos exposure in the 1980s through strengthened Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulation have had a positive public health impact.”

Asbestos is not OSHA’s only success, of course. As I testified at a Senate hearing a few weeks ago, the agency’s cotton dust standard eliminated byssinosis, a once common disease among U.S. textile workers, and the OSHA lead standard has no doubt prevented many cases of lead poisoning.

But OSHA took on asbestos, lead and cotton dust in the 1970s, and has issued few new standards for chemical hazards in the last decade. Here at The Pump Handle, we’ve been talking a lot about OSHA’s failure to protect workers from diacetyl. But there are plenty of other examples.

Take beryllium, a remarkable metal that is lighter than aluminum yet stiffer than steel. Its alloys and compounds exhibit a host of unusual technical characteristics. At some point in almost every production process involving beryllium, fine dust or fumes of the metal or its compound are released into the air. Breathing the tiniest amounts can cause disability and death from chronic beryllium disease.

The OSHA beryllium standard was set by two Atomic Energy Commission Scientists riding in a taxi cab in 1948. By the early 1990s, the Department of Energy (DOE) recognized the standard was not adequately protective. In 1999, during the period I was Assistant Secretary, DOE issued a new standard 10 times stronger. Even the beryllium industry has come around to the position that the current OSHA standard is not adequately protective – the industry’s experts recognize that workers get sick at exposure levels below the current OSHA standard.

Today, the federal government finds itself in the embarrassing position of explaining why the employees of DOE and its contractors are now covered by a workplace rule ten times more protective than the one covering workers in the private sector.

Beryllium is but one example, one about which we know a great deal. OSHA currently enforces permissible exposure limits for only about 500 chemicals, a small fraction of the thousands of substances present in the American workplace. OSHA even lacks standards for some of the more common chemicals; there are OSHA standards for fewer than 200 of the approximately 3,000 chemicals characterized by the EPA as High Production Volume (more than a million pounds of the substance is produced or imported each year). In the more than 35 years since OSHA began it has issued new standards for only about 30 substances.

The remaining exposure limits were adopted by OSHA in 1970, from the recommendations of private voluntary organizations.  Many of these exposure limits were already out of date in 1970, when OSHA adopted them. Moreover, these are not comprehensive standards with requirements for employers to conduct exposure monitoring and provide medical surveillance or worker training, but only exposure limits. As a result, for most hazardous chemicals, OSHA’s standards are either inadequate or totally absent.

Chemical by chemical standard setting would be a painfully time- and resource-intensive process for any agency, much less this beleaguered one. OSHA doesn’t have the staff to work on more than one or two standards at a time, and, with no judicial or congressional oversight to speed the process, each standard takes years to complete. Unless things change radically, only a handful of the thousands of chemicals in daily use in American workplaces will ever be the subject of an OSHA standard.

Now is the time to begin to remedy this, or at least to discuss how. We’ll be posting more on this at TPH. In the meantime, Professor Frank Mirer, in his testimony at the recent hearing of the House Education and Labor Committee, proposes some solutions. I do also in my Senate testimony. Send your suggestions in.

David Michaels heads the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP) and is Professor and Associate Chairman in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services.

5 thoughts on “OSHA Saves Lives (But Not Enough)

  1. David Michael’s commentary, and the confirmation that the asbestos, cotton dust and lead standards transformed work in those industries, are very helpful to the debate about what to do next time, if there is a next time.

    However, I strongly disagree that “OSHA doesn’t have the staff to work on more than one or two standards at a time…” That’s about what Ed Foulke said, although there’s a big difference between 1 or 2 standards and moving backwards.

    At current reduced forces, OSHA is authorized 83 heads and nearly $17 million a year to set standards. These forces can be supplemented with other funds for lawyers, policy analysis for contracting economic and other analyses, and technical support for hearing and data management. To me, from years in the standards process from the consumer side, these resources are substantial in relation to starting and moving a portfolio of 3 PEL based rules a year. David could comment on the amount of time and effort in the mechanics of the DOE beryllium standard. We could think of the work as several master’s essay equivalents, given access to a statistical consultant and a financial analyst. There may well be 2 years of technical work to develop a standard, and two years of process requirements to promulgate the standard. But, to give Baruch Fellner his due, these standards are supposed to be a big deal.

    The problem is not “OSHA,” if “OSHA” means the staff of the standards, policy and technical support directorates and the solicitor’s office. The problem is the Assistant Secretary for OSHA and the Secretary of Labor giving permission to start the process. And that’s been endemic, although the problem has reached epidemic proportions since 2001.

  2. I watched my father die of mesothelioma, so I’m aware of the horrors of occupational disease. I’m hoping your website addresses my issue, which affects 1 in 6 American workers.
    Notwithstanding 14 years of well documented and excellent service, I was targeted for expulsion by a new supervisor. She proceeded to verbally assault, demean, humiliate, sabotage and set me up. Other people were cajoled into helping her. One staff refused to help her and was also targeted. Like many Targets I became too sick to work before she could actually fire me. So did this other person honorable enough to stick up for me. We’re far to young to retire but we may never work again. This is May and I haven’t worked since last August. My colleague hasn’t worked since last September. The supervisor controls the enviornment so there is scant evidence.
    Workers like us who find themselves being targeted start out feeling terrified and that continues on a daily basis. They try everything to please the bully but the abuse goes on. Eventually they suffer from PTSD due to the constant, daily assaultive and sabotaging behavior. Stomach Ulcers and Blood Pressure/Cardiovascular problems are rampant. None of this is compensable under workers compensation laws in my state.
    87% of the victims are women. Statistics in our support group show aproximately 1/3 of the women’s spouses or significant others have either left the relationship because of it, or have become so traumatized by watching their spouse that they have quit their own jobs! (now trying to get disability or start their own business)
    The civil rights act does nothing to help these workers.
    We have a support group for those afflicted. Please email stopthebullies (at) comcast (dot) net, or stopthebullies (at) yahoo (dot) com.
    Please do something on your blog to get people looking at this problem. This can permanently ruin a worker’s finances, career, mental and physical health, home and family.

  3. Frank Mirer is right, of course, that OSHA has the staff to turn out more standards than I suggested in my post. But it takes more than staff and resources. It takes leadership committed to using the best science to prevent occupational injuries and illnesses. And leadership committed to preventing injuries and illnesses is what’s missing from OSHA today.

  4. I think an analysis of voluntary product withdrawals support the OSHA impact argument.

    In anticipation of the implementation of the asbestos standard companies ceased production of asbestos pipe covering and block. By 1974 most companies had asbestos free joint compounds although these products were not removed until banned by the CPSC in 1977.

    It is important to note that the asbestos standard was not enforced for construction workers until 1976.

    A final lesson is that the companies who removed these products soon after or even before the standard went into effect claimed that the standard would cause severe financial disruption. (See Goldberg hearing transcripts). More importantly, many companies claimed that substitutes were not feasible.

  5. David Egilman brings up an interesting point, but I would love to see it documented in a separate post by Michaels or someone else here. *Every* time the government suggests a new regulation, industry always talks about number of jobs that will be lost and negative financial impact.

    If this was really true, then we would expect that with all of the regulations since, say 1980, that there would be millions of unemployed workers and billions in lost profits because of new regulations. Obviously, that can’t be the case, but the argument is constantly trotted out.

    Has any economist done an analysis that adds up all of industry’s claimed dollar and job loss over a certain time period, and then checked those claims against actual impact to the economy.

    I realize that the result from such an endeavor would probably read like a Wood Allen comedy skit.

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