February 28, 2018 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 0Comment

Peter Gerstenberger with the Tree Care Industry Association (TCIA) has a refreshing message for Congress: OSHA is not our enemy. That’s what I heard from him during a hearing yesterday of the House Education and the Workforce Committee. He’s the trade group’s senior advisor for safety, standards and compliance. Gerstenberger explained his association’s need for an OSHA safety standard, specifically one designed particularly for arborists.

It’s tiresome to hear the Congressional Republicans and business groups lambast regulations and government agencies. Yesterday’s hearing about OSHA offered critics plenty of opportunity to do that. Mr. Gerstenberger, however, had a different and positive message:

“We feel we need a rule as opposed to any kind of compliance assistant or outreach efforts because a rule has more gravity. We feel we need the prescriptive requirements that could be found in such a rule to provide guidance, particularly for the smallest of businesess who sometimes struggle with the shear weight or vagueness of the OSHA rules that exist right now.

[We want] very prescriptive rules with clear-cut guidance telling us how to operate [for example] brush chippers, how to climb trees, how to do the things that we do, and do them safely. We feel [a rule] would go a long way to improving worker safety in our industry.” [Video at 01:01:50]

In 2006, the TCIA petitioned OSHA to promulgate a safety standard specific to arboriculture. Members of Congress, including Reps. George Miller (D-CA) and Howard McKeon (R-CA) [letter here] supported the industry’s petition, as did Senators Patty Murray (D-WA), Mike Enzi (R-WY) and Johnny Isakson (R-GA) [letter here].  Both letters urged OSHA to “seize the opportunity” to develop a specific safety regulation for tree care workers. OSHA—as it does with most petitions for rulemaking—denied it. Since that time, Maryland OSHA and Virginia OSHA adopted standards for tree industry firms operating in their states (here and here.)

During yesterday’s hearing, Congressman Joe Wilson (R-SC) asked Gerstenberger what–besides a regulation–does the tree care industry want from OSHA. (Video at 01:32:43)  I’ll rephrase the Congressman’s question this way: “Surely, you want something more than a regulation, right?”  Gerstenberger did not waver from his call for an OSHA standard.

“We appreciate the fact that you [Congressman Wilson] signed on to letters to OSHA supporting our industry’s efforts to get a separate standard. We really appreciate your support.

“In terms of other things we could be doing with OSHA, first and foremost, I’d have to say that we feel the process has to start with a separate standard. Beyond that, any outreach activity or enforcement–based upon a separate standard with OSHA–we feel it would be in and of itself more effective, with a black and white rule to fall back on.”

The TCIA representative added:

“Nobody has discussed the Susan Harwood grant program today. We don’t know its future, but I will say, we have been the thankful recipient of many Harwood grants in the past.”

The Trump Administration’s budget zeroes funding for the Harwood program.  Its $10.5 million has been awarded annually to industry, labor, universities, and not-for-profit organizations to provide much-needed safety and health training to employers and workers. Twice the TCIA received funds to do so (here, here) including to provide training and education materials to non-English speaking workers and those with low-literacy.

Gerstenberger said:

“[We] used that money to provide a lot of effective training, convert a lot of folks in our industry, and open eyes and change attitudes. We’d love the opportunity for that to continue–to continue to provide meaningful training to people in our industry. “But again, everything is based upon and has to start with black and white rules that are prescriptive for our industry that are easy to follow.” [Video at 01:33:34]

Falls from trees, falls from aerial lifts, struck by branches, electrocutions. Data on OSHA’s website assembled from fatality and injury reports illustrate the serious hazards faced by tree care workers. I count nearly 70 incidents in just the first eight months of 2017.

It’s disappointing that the Obama Administration did not “seize the opportunity” to promulgate a safety standard for tree care workers. OSHA certainly had leadership during that time who recognized the benefits of protective regulations.

I encourage the Tree Care Industry Association to continue to push for their own safety standard. Hopefully President Trump’s pick to serve as OSHA chief can be convinced to do so by Mr. Gerstenberger and TCIA’s members.

My prediction to-date has been that Trump’s OSHA would not issue any new worker protections. I hope the TCIA and the agency will prove me wrong.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.