Politics and Partisans
Can Occupational Health
Science Overcome the Limits of Public Policy?
BY KAY BECHTOLD, NICOLE RACADAG, AND ED RUTKOWSKI
Washington, D.C., proved to be more than just setting for this year’s AIHA Fall Conference. The educational program as a whole, and the general sessions in particular, explored the ramifications of politics on issues of vital interest to industrial hygienists. ALL CONFLICT, NO COMPROMISE Ron Elving, a senior editor and on-air political analyst for National Public Radio, shared his deep familiarity with the ways of Washington during the opening general session on Monday, Oct. 20. Elving’s presentation contrasted the bitter partisan divide in contemporary U.S. politics with a bygone era of bipartisan cooperation.
By design the federal government requires compromise in order to function, but, Elving asserted, the centrists necessary for achieving consensus have vanished from the political scene.
In Elving’s estimation, the growing importance of primary elections has helped drive moderates from U.S. politics: since primaries cater to the most partisan voters in both major parties, those voters have more influence than in the past, and elected officials beholden to them are less likely to work together. Elving lamented the absence of political odd couples such as Orrin Hatch and the late Ted Kennedy, whose personal friendship during their time in the Senate fostered a culture conducive to compromise. No similar cross-party relationships exist among current senators, Elving said.
Elving also argued that the media have contributed to the demise of bipartisanship. The rise of 24-hour news coverage and the splintering of audiences along ideological and political lines have meant that media must cater to extreme positions in order to survive. “It pays to be partisan,” Elving said. THE I2P2 DIVIDE Partisans of a different sort took center stage later on Monday. Attendees were treated to a presidential-style debate between supporters and opponents of an OSHA rule that would require employers to implement an injury and illness prevention program (I2P2). The supporters were James Thornton, CIH, CSP, director of Health, Safety and Environment at Northrop Grumman in Newport News, Va., and Charles F. Redinger, PhD, CIH, of Redinger 360, Inc.
Arrayed against them were I2P2 opponents David G. Sarvadi, JD, attorney at law with Keller & Heckman, LLP, and Thomas W. Lawrence, Jr., CSP, PE, of Safety and Compliance Management.
Moderator Dave Johnson of ISHN began by asking participants to explain the meaning of “I2P2”: is it a program, or a system? The question highlighted the difficulty of articulating the components of a rule that has not yet been proposed.
In the supporters’ view, OSHA’s version of I2P2 would be more of a program than a system, with components that include management commitment and employee engagement, hazard assessment and abatement programs, and program evaluation. Opponents Sarvadi and Lawrence answered that whether I2P2 is a program or a system, an I2P2 rule would be onerous for small businesses.
I2P2 is “an appropriate way for management in large organizations to structure the operation and to keep track of things” but is unnecessary for organizations with fewer than 200 employees, Sarvadi said.
Thornton and Redinger responded that small employers are the ones who need I2P2 the most, and that OSHA could structure the rule based on employer size and demographics.
“I have faith that we can work with the agency to develop a program or standard that works for everyone,” Thornton said. “I believe the promulgation of an I2P2 standard does give a fresh approach. Small employers are the very ones who need this.”
“Small workplaces are hungry for new tools—for an approach like this that helps them think systematically about workplace safety and health,” Redinger added.
Sarvadi countered that small businesses are not looking for programmatic approaches; they want specific guidance on what OSHA requires of them. He and Lawrence also highlighted research that suggests the downward trend in injury and illness rates over the last 60 years pre-dates the agency.
“It doesn’t appear that there’s been any impact by OSHA on injury and illness rates because the slope of the curve hasn’t changed,” Sarvadi explained. “Do we need this kind of a standard to have an impact on those rates?”
Lawrence further argued that OSHA should not be involved in any regulation that is not specifically hazard-based. He explained that the agency has made some impact with permissible exposure limits (PELs), but contended that OSHA would have a difficult time fairly enforcing a “variable” standard like I2P2.
Supporters Redinger and Thornton pointed to OSHA’s difficulty in passing hazard-based standards.
“If OSHA had promulgated an I2P2 standard at the get-go, would we need these archaic substance-by-substance ways of regulating in the workplace?” Thornton asked.
Both sides in the debate defended their positions enthusiastically, but it will be a while before either is proved right. I2P2 is listed as a long-term action on OSHA’s most recent regulatory agenda, and a proposal is not expected anytime soon. OSHA'S TO-DO LIST One possible reason for the delay is that OSHA has one of the smallest budgets among federal agencies and only 2,500 inspectors. In a special luncheon discussion on Oct. 20, OSHA chief David Michaels, PhD, MPH, explained that the agency has to use numerous strategies to fulfill its mission of protecting workers at more than eight million workplaces.
“Our agency covers everything from nail guns to nail salons, and we are now even doing it in many different languages,” Michaels said.
According to Michaels, OSHA is currently focusing on the following worker health and safety issues:
Temporary workers. Michaels underscored the fact that new workers are at increased risk of injury because host employers don’t have the same commitment to temporary employees as they do to permanent ones. The agency is currently increasing its outreach and education on the temporary worker issue through its alliance with the American Staffing Association. In August, OSHA also partnered with NIOSH to release a publication detailing recommended practices for staffing agencies and host employers to better protect temporary workers from hazards on the job.
Severe injury reporting rule. In September, OSHA announced a final rule that would revise the requirements for reporting work-related fatality, injury, and illness information. The rule retains the current requirement to report work-related fatalities within eight hours but adds the requirement to report in-patient hospitalizations of one or more employees, amputations, and eye losses within four hours. The changes go into effect Jan. 1, 2015, in states under the jurisdiction of federal OSHA.
Recordkeeping rule. This rule updates the list of industries that, due to their relatively low rates of occupational injuries and illnesses, are exempt from the requirement to routinely keep OSHA injury and illness records. The previous list of exempt industries was based on the old Standard Industrial Classification system, while the new list is based on the North American Industry Classification System. Establishments located in states under federal OSHA jurisdiction must begin to comply with the new requirements on Jan. 1, 2015.
Exposure to respirable crystalline silica. According to Michaels, OSHA is looking to finalize this rule within the next two years. The proposed rule would establish a new permissible exposure limit (PEL) of 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air for all industry sectors. OSHA estimates that the rule would improve protections for 2.2 million workers, save nearly 700 lives, prevent 1,600 cases of silicosis annually once full effects are realized, and provide average net benefits of $2.8 to $4.7 billion annually over the next 60 years.
Protecting workers from hazardous chemicals. Michaels stated, “Our PELs are not at a safe level,” citing the fact that the vast majority of existing PELs have not been updated since 1971 and current scientific data suggest that many of the outdated PELs are not sufficiently protective. OSHA released a request for information (RFI) on Oct. 10, seeking recommendations on how the agency might update its PELs for hundreds of chemicals.
AN EDUCATION IN RISK In the annual Henry F. Smyth, Jr., Award Lecture on Tuesday, Oct. 21, Fred Boelter, CIH, PE, BCEE, shared lessons from his thirty-year consulting career and reflected on the role of industrial hygienists in educating laypeople about risk. Boelter, who is Principal at Chicago-based ENVIRON, used his experiences as a consultant to illustrate the challenges IHs face when they try to explain technical information to employers, employees, and the general public.
Boelter recounted a discussion with one of his clients, who told him that professionals with technical backgrounds tend to be poor service providers because they are more comfortable with data and equations than with people.
“It’s hard to consult without understanding people,” Boelter said.
A common difficulty for IHs, Boelter said, is that laypeople tend to view risks and rewards as dichotomies—in their minds, either something is safe or it’s not. This mindset can be especially challenging when IHs talk to employers, who never want to pay for their services and are often not receptive to their recommendations, Boelter said.
“Sometimes our professional missions are like coaxing a feral cat out of a drain pipe,” Boelter said. “Sometimes you’re going to get hissed at, and sometimes you’re going to get scratched.”
For their part, IHs must understand that their job isn’t to impose their ideas of value on their clients. “We must create value, but only the client decides what’s valuable,” Boelter said. “What we think about cost and benefit doesn’t matter.”
But IHs must also learn how to handle situations where the client’s idea of value could lead to ethical problems. “Not all clients are right for you, and you are not right for all clients,” Boelter said. “Learn how to say ‘no.’ You must walk away from anyone who is going to get you in trouble or make you face a choice between getting paid and your integrity.”
Key long-term challenges for the profession, Boelter said, are to educate the general public on the difference between scientific understanding and opinion, and to get the public to care as much about protecting workers as they do about protecting the environment.
“If risk is a core competency [of industrial hygiene], we have an important role to play in helping the public sort through data,” Boelter said.
Presented by the Academy of Industrial Hygiene, the Smyth Award honors individuals who have contributed to the public welfare by recognizing and fulfilling the needs of the industrial hygiene profession.
NEW DIALOGUE During a general session on Oct. 21, William Perry, CIH, Director of the OSHA Directorate of Standards and Guidance, encouraged attendees to engage with OSHA in a national dialogue to improve the management of chemical risks in the workplace. Perry discussed details of the agency’s recent RFI regarding current practices and future methods for updating its PELs and new strategies for protecting workers from chemical exposures.
Perry clarified the type of information that OSHA is seeking to an audience of stakeholders well aware that many of OSHA’s PELs are outdated and are not sufficiently protective of the nation’s workers. For AIHA members, updating the PELs has been the number-one public policy issue since 1994.
“We talk about updating the PELs, [but] our intent here is to go beyond that, looking at ways to help employers improve the management of chemical risks in the workplace,” Perry said.
PELs exist for only about five percent of industrially important chemicals, Perry noted, reminding attendees that OSHA has issued comprehensive chemical standards for only a small percentage of the approximately 8,000 chemicals in commerce. “It’s obvious that we aren’t going to get there by going down the road we’ve been traveling all this time,” Perry said.
Perry stressed that the agency has to operate within a fairly strict statutory framework. For example, Section 3(8) of the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act—the crux of the 1980 benzene decision—provides that all OSHA standards must be “reasonably necessary or appropriate.” And Section 6(b)(5) requires the agency to set standards that reduce or eliminate significant risk to the extent it is feasible to do so.
“We want stakeholders to keep these principles in mind when they’re thinking about new or different approaches,” Perry said.
One broad focus of the RFI, Perry said, is to identify possible approaches for streamlining OSHA’s risk assessment and feasibility analyses, which take a lot of time—sometimes years—and resources to complete. For risk assessment, the RFI indicates that OSHA is considering whether it must conduct dose-response modeling in situations where empirical evidence indicates a significant risk or where case studies identify certain measures that significantly reduce risk.
Another focus of the RFI is to help stakeholders think more broadly about chemical risk management in the workplace and potential alternatives to establishing PELs, Perry said. For example, the agency requests comments on the kind of information and guidance it can provide about chemical substitution. Perry also invited suggestions for how employers could use hazard banding, control banding, and occupational exposure banding.
Perry closed his presentation by urging attendees to get involved in the conversation, and to even comment more than once as the discussion evolves.
“This really is the longest RFI OSHA’s ever published,” he said, “And we look forward to everyone’s participation.”
Stakeholders have until April 8, 2015, to comment on OSHA’s RFI. For more information, visit osha.gov/chemicalmanagement.SAVE THE DATE Next year’s fall conference will be held Oct. 24–28 in Orlando, Fla. For more information, visit www.aihafallconference.org. KAY BECHTOLD is assistant editor for The Synergist. She can be reached at (703) 846-0737 or firstname.lastname@example.org. NICOLE RACADAG is AIHA’s public relations specialist. She can be reached at (703) 846-0700 or email@example.com. ED RUTKOWSKI is editor in chief of The Synergist. He can be reached at (703) 846-0734 or firstname.lastname@example.org.