thesynergist | NEWSWATCH
Letter to Biden Administration Urges Recognition of Coronavirus Aerosol Transmission
In a letter dated Feb. 15 (PDF), thirteen experts in aerosol science, occupational health, and infectious diseases call on the Biden administration to acknowledge inhalation as the key route of exposure to SARS-CoV-2 and take immediate action to limit aerosol transmission. Addressed to senior administration officials, the letter advocates for a range of measures that include updating CDC and OSHA guidelines to fully address transmission via small inhalable particles, directing healthcare organizations to cease decontamination of filtering facepiece respirators and other contingency practices, issuing an emergency OSHA standard on COVID-19, adopting standards for more effective face coverings for the public, improving distribution of NIOSH-certified respirators, and sharply increasing production of N95 filtering facepiece respirators (FFRs). At the time the letter was released, COVID-19 case rates were dropping across the United States. According to CDC data, the seven-day moving average of new cases fell from a high of nearly 250,000 on Jan. 8 to just over 81,000 on Feb. 16. However, the fatality rate barely changed over that period, and the letter cautions that SARS-CoV-2 variants could fuel sharp increases in both new cases and deaths. In a press briefing held in mid-February by AIHA, several of the letter’s signatories discussed the reasoning behind their recommendations. Dr. Donald K. Milton of the University of Maryland School of Public Health expressed concern over CDC guidance that emphasizes SARS-CoV-2 transmission through touch and large respiratory droplets while downplaying the role of smaller aerosols such as those emitted when people speak, breathe, cough, and sneeze. As of early March, CDC had not changed its guidance. The briefing participants also argued that workers whose jobs expose them to these aerosols should be provided respirators for use on the job. “The purpose of the letter was to draw attention to the fact that workers are not being offered the protection they need,” said Lisa M. Brosseau, ScD, CIH, of the University of Minnesota Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy. Many of CDC’s recommendations for protecting workers and the public from COVID-19 were adopted when NIOSH-approved N95 FFRs were in short supply. But reporting by The New York Times has since suggested that much of the FFR shortfall in the U.S. has been met by domestic producers, who nevertheless cannot find buyers because hospitals have already contracted with foreign manufacturers. During the briefing, several participants discussed possible reasons why CDC and other health bodies such as the World Health Organization did not immediately acknowledge that SARS-CoV-2 spreads through the air. Dr. Robert T. Schooley of the University of California San Diego said that the word “airborne” has been “taboo” among some scientists who have long associated it with scaremongering. “People have been reluctant to use that word because of what it conjures up,” Schooley said.
Whatever the reasons, the participants at the briefing asserted that the public needs to receive clear guidance from the federal government about the way the virus spreads. “We desperately need CDC to give the straight truth,” said Kimberly Prather, PhD, of UC San Diego. “There is still way too much confusion in the public about how this virus is getting around.”
DOL Makes Annual Adjustment to OSHA’s Civil Penalties
A final rule published by the Department of Labor adjusts for inflation the civil monetary penalties applied under its regulations. The adjustments for 2021 apply to OSHA as well as MSHA, the Employment and Training Administration, the Office of Workers' Compensation Programs, the Office of the Secretary, and the Wage and Hour Division. OSHA’s maximum penalty for serious violations is now $13,653, and the maximum penalty for willful or repeated violations is $136,532 per violation. The agency’s maximum penalty for failure to abate violations increased to $13,653 per day beyond the abatement date. A table detailing the updated penalty amounts is available on the agency’s website. Federal agencies are required by law to adjust their civil penalties to account for inflation. More information about the inflation adjustments for this year is available in DOL’s press release and the Federal Register notice.
EPA to Update “Systematic Review” Approach for Chemical Risk Evaluations
EPA announced on Feb. 16 that it is updating its approach to the “systematic review” method of using scientific studies used to inform chemical risk evaluations under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). As amended by the 2016 Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, TSCA requires EPA’s Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics (OPPT) to establish a process for risk evaluation and to complete chemical risk evaluations under strict deadlines. EPA’s announcement coincides with the publication of a report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine that recommends changes to the agency’s systematic review process to ensure that it is “comprehensive, workable, objective, and transparent.”
The National Academies had peer reviewed EPA’s 2018 “Application of Systematic Review in TSCA Risk Evaluations” document and found that EPA’s approach to systematic review did not adequately meet “the state of the practice.” That is, EPA’s approach did not conform to how the steps of systematic review—problem formulation and protocol development, evidence identification, evidence evaluation, evidence synthesis, and evidence integration—are generally conducted. The report urges EPA to “comprehensively reevaluate” its methods.
EPA is already developing a TSCA systematic review protocol that will adopt or address the National Academies’ recommendations, which it expects to publish later this year. The agency will take public comment on its updated approach at that time.
For more information, see the news releases from EPA and the National Academies or download a PDF of the National Academies’ report.
Researchers Examine Required and Voluntary Use of Hazard Controls for COVID-19
In NIOSH’s Feb. 19 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, researchers examine required and voluntary occupational use hazard controls like physical barriers and masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in workplaces outside of healthcare.
At the time the survey was conducted in June 2020, only about 45 percent of non-healthcare worker respondents reported the use of hazard controls in the workplace. Among this group, about 55 percent of respondents said that their employer required the use of COVID-19-related controls, while the others (540 workers) reported voluntary use of controls. Approximately 29 percent of workers for whom use of hazard controls was voluntary said they used them. According to the NIOSH report, “voluntary use was approximately double (22 percentage points higher) among workers whose employers provided hazard controls than among those whose employers did not.” The survey results also showed that lower-income workers were more likely to be unable to obtain occupational hazard controls for COVID-19 prevention and be prohibited from using them.
More than three-quarters of the workers who reported not using COVID-19 hazard controls on the job said that they did not believe they were needed. Other workers who reported not using hazard controls said that they were prohibited from using them (about 8 percent of this group), and nearly 15 percent of workers indicated that they could not obtain them.
For more information, including a discussion of NIOSH’s findings, see the full report. For more data from the report, see “By the Numbers” in this issue.
EPA: Certain Copper Alloys Effective Against SARS-CoV-2
Certain high-percentage copper alloy products continuously kill viruses that make contact with them and may “provide long-term effectiveness” against SARS-CoV-2, EPA has announced. According to the agency, products containing these copper alloys are the first with residual claims against viruses to be registered for use in the United States. EPA expects these products to eliminate 99.9 percent of SARS-CoV-2 within two hours based on efficacy testing against harder-to-kill viruses. Doorknobs and handrails are examples of surfaces that can be manufactured to contain antimicrobial copper alloys.
High-percentage copper alloy products will be included in the List N Appendix, EPA’s list of supplemental residual antimicrobial products that can be used against SARS-CoV-2. EPA states that copper alloy products cannot replace infection control practices and that individuals should continue to follow CDC, state, and local public health guidelines.
For more information, see EPA’s news release.
CSB Investigating Fatal Liquid Nitrogen Release at Georgia Poultry Plant
U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) staff deployed to Gainesville, Georgia, to investigate a liquid nitrogen release at a poultry processing plant on Thursday, Jan. 28, that resulted in six fatalities, 12 hospitalizations, and 130 people being evacuated. Katherine Lemos, CSB chair and CEO, provided an update concerning the investigation on Jan. 30 (PDF) and followed up with additional details on Feb. 1 and Feb. 7.
“The event occurred on Line 4, where chicken is processed, to include seasoning, cooking, freezing, and then packaging,” Lemos said in the Feb. 1 statement. “CSB investigators are focusing on the cryogenic freezing system, based on information from various sources.”
Lemos did not speculate about what may have caused the accident and noted that, depending on the complexity of the investigation, determining what led to the event and why it occurred may take years. The agency learned that unplanned maintenance was being conducted on Line 4 on the day of the release and that the plant had experienced unresolved operational issues on the chicken conveyer belt that may have resulted in an accidental release.
Liquid nitrogen is colorless and odorless and can cause serious injury and death without warning, while nitrogen gas is heavier than air, can force oxygen out of the surrounding area, and may cause tissue damage, burns, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, and loss of consciousness to people who have been exposed.
For more information about the Jan. 28 nitrogen leak, refer to CSB’s initial press release.
“Stronger” Workplace COVID-19 Guidance Published by OSHA
New guidance published by OSHA on Jan. 29 is intended to help employers and workers identify the risks of being exposed to or contracting COVID-19 and determine effective control measures to mitigate or prevent its spread in workplaces. The agency’s press release touts “Protecting Workers: Guidance on Mitigating and Preventing the Spread of COVID-19 in the Workplace” as “stronger worker safety guidance.” OSHA’s new guidance is meant to be applied in most workplace settings outside of healthcare and emergency response.
OSHA stresses that the most effective way to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in workplaces is for employers to implement coronavirus prevention programs. According to the agency’s guidance, such programs require conducting a hazard assessment, identifying control measures that limit COVID-19 spread, adopting policies that do not punish potentially infected workers for staying home, ensuring that COVID-19 policies and procedures are communicated in workers’ primary languages, and implementing protections from retaliation for workers who raise concerns related to COVID-19. Both employers’ and workers’ roles within COVID-19 prevention programs are outlined in the guidance document. It also informs workers of what they must know to protect themselves and includes a list of recommendations for administrative and engineering controls and personal protective equipment.
The guidance is not a standard or regulation. According to OSHA, the guidance will be updated as science, best practices, and standards develop, and the agency intends to keep track of changes for transparency’s sake. For more information, refer to the full guidance document.
OSHA Encourages All Employers to Participate in 2021 Safety Stand-Down
The 2021 National Safety Stand-Down to Prevent Falls in Construction is scheduled for May 3–7, OSHA has announced. The annual event is intended to raise awareness of fall hazards and to encourage conversations about industry best practices to prevent fall fatalities and injuries. According to OSHA, fatalities caused by falls from elevation continue to be a leading cause of death for construction workers: in 2018, 320 of the 1,008 fatalities recorded in construction were attributed to falls.
Workplaces that participated in past years’ safety stand-downs include commercial, residential, and highway construction companies, contractors, subcontractors, and independent contractors; general industry employers; the U.S. military and other government participants; unions and trade associations; and safety equipment manufacturers. OSHA encourages any employer that wants to prevent hazards in the workplace to participate.
OSHA’s website provides resources to help workplaces participate in the event.
Virginia Adopts Permanent Standard to Control COVID-19 Spread in Workplaces
The Commonwealth of Virginia has adopted a permanent standard that requires employers to take certain measures to control, prevent, and mitigate the spread of SARS-CoV-2 in Virginia workplaces. The Final Permanent Standard for Infectious Disease Prevention of the SARS-CoV-2 Virus That Causes COVID-19 went into effect on Jan. 27, 2021, and applies to every employer, employee, and place of employment in the state.
Under the standard, all Virginia employers must assess their employees’ risk of being exposed to SARS-CoV-2 within the workplace, encourage employees to self-monitor for COVID-19 symptoms, and develop and implement policies and procedures for employees to report their symptoms if any occur. Employees known or suspected to be infected with SARS-CoV-2 may not be allowed to return to the work site until they have been without fever for at least 24 hours, respiratory symptoms have improved, and at least 10 days have passed since the onset of symptoms. Infected employees who do not develop symptoms may not return to work until at least 10 days after their first positive reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) test for SARS-CoV-2 RNA. Subcontractor, contract, or temporary employees who are known or suspected to be infected with the virus are also prohibited from coming to the workplace until cleared.
If an employee tests positive for SARS-CoV-2, employers are required to inform other employees who may have been exposed, other employers with workers present at the time, and the building or facility owner. If two or more confirmed COVID-19 cases occur at a work site within a 14-day period, employers must report the cases to the Virginia Department of Health.
While at work, employees must observe physical distancing while on the job and during breaks. Employers can help ensure this through measures such as closing or restricting access to any areas where employees might congregate, such as common rooms, breakrooms, or lunchrooms. The standard also includes procedures for cases in which multiple employees must occupy a vehicle for work-related purposes, lists requirements for the provision of personal protective equipment, and stipulates the enforcement of certain workplace sanitation practices.
The standard designates workplaces as having a very high, high, medium, or lower risk level for SARS-CoV-2 exposure based on the type of work environment and factors such as the number of employees and others present in relation to the size of the work area. According to risk levels at their workplace, employers may need to comply with additional health and safety measures and provide employees with further training to recognize the hazards and symptoms of COVID-19 and follow procedures that minimize the risk of infection.
The new permanent standard succeeds Virginia’s emergency temporary standard for COVID-19, which went into effect on July 27, 2020. For more information, refer to the full permanent standard (PDF) or the website of the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry.
New ASTM Standard Establishes Design and Performance Requirements for Face Coverings
In mid-February, ASTM International published a voluntary standard that addresses the design, construction, particle filtration efficiency, sizing, and labeling of face coverings. The organization’s committee on personal protective clothing and equipment developed ASTM F3502-21, Standard Specification for Barrier Face Coverings, to help workers and the public select face covering products.
During a webinar held Feb. 21 to introduce the standard, Jonathan Szalajda, deputy director of the NIOSH National Personal Protective Technology Laboratory, explained that the wide variance in the performance of face coverings has created confusion among users. “The standard allows for direct comparison of products to a baseline level of performance,” Szalajda said.
The standard requires face coverings to be designed so that most of wearers’ inhalations and exhalations go through the fabric—not around the sides of the mask—and specifies how products can meet requirements for source control. Face coverings must also cover the wearer’s nose and mouth, minimize gaps between the fabric and the wearer’s face, and have a “retention system” such as ties or ear loops to hold it in place. Manufacturers must demonstrate that a face covering can be worn by a wide variety of the population.
Other areas addressed by the standard include reusability, shelf life, and laundering of face coverings. Szalajda noted that some face coverings can shrink or stretch when laundered, which potentially reduces their ability to filter particulate matter. The standard does not address performance attributes such as the flame resistance of face coverings and the use of antimicrobial or antiviral materials.
Individuals who register for free on the ASTM website can view the standard online. More information is also provided in ASTM’s press release.
OSHA Proposes Update to Hazard Communication Standard
A proposed rule issued by OSHA on Feb. 5 would update the agency’s hazard communication standard to align with the seventh revision of the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (GHS). The update is intended to increase worker protections and reduce the incidence of chemical-related occupational illnesses and injuries by improving the information on labels and safety data sheets (SDSs). OSHA has also proposed changes intended to address issues that have emerged since the standard was implemented in 2012 and improve alignment with international trading partners.
GHS, an international approach to hazard communication, is intended to address criteria for the classification of chemical hazards and harmonize documents such as labels and SDSs across the world. Revision 7 of the GHS was published in 2017 and included modified criteria for the categorization of flammable gases and amendments clarifying the definitions of some health hazard classes. The latest revision of the GHS, Revision 8, was published in 2019 and included changes to aerosol classification criteria and to precautionary statements for skin irritation and eye damage. OSHA explains that while the proposed rule revises its standard to align with GHS Revision 7, the rulemaking process will consider select provisions from Revision 8.
OSHA’s proposed rule was published on Feb. 16 and is available for download via the Federal Register. OSHA will accept comments on its proposal until April 19.
For more information, see OSHA’s press release.
New COVID-19 Vaccine Resources Published by NIEHS and OSHA
The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Worker Training Program (NIEHS WTP) and OSHA have developed new resources that address workplace health and safety issues related to the rollout of COVID-19 vaccination programs.
The new resources from NIEHS include a fact sheet that covers general COVID-19 vaccine information for workers (PDF); a fact sheet describing the elements of a model workplace vaccination program (PDF); and a fact sheet on preventing injuries and exposures to vaccine administrators (PDF). These fact sheets are additions to a range of tools that WTP has developed for employers and workers at risk of exposure to COVID-19. The NIEHS WTP website links to training resources in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese; resources developed by WTP’s partner organizations; and guidance documents published by federal agencies.
New resources related to COVID-19 vaccination are also available from OSHA. Two new posters focus on the safety of workers who are administering COVID-19 vaccines in healthcare settings or at pop-up vaccination sites. “Keeping Workers Safe at COVID-19 Vaccination Sites” is available in English (PDF) and Spanish (PDF). Like the fact sheets from NIEHS WTP, OSHA’s new resources are free to download and use.
NIOSH to Study Airborne Transmission of Influenza
NIOSH has requested an extension for a research project focused on factors that influence influenza transmission. The study, which is intended to improve understanding of the likelihood that influenza virus will be transmitted by infectious airborne particles produced during coughing and breathing, was temporarily stopped last year due to pandemic-related concerns and challenges.
As of early March, NIOSH had sought approval from the Office of Management and Budget for the study to span three years. NIOSH researchers will follow 90 volunteer test subjects each year during that time and will compare the production of infectious aerosols by patients who have influenza with the levels of biomarkers of influenza infection in the patients’ blood. According to NIOSH, influenza remains a significant public health concern “because of the substantial health burden from seasonal influenza and the potential for a severe pandemic.”
In addition, research related to airborne transmission of influenza informs infection control and personal protective measures in healthcare facilities.
NIOSH published a notice of its request for an extension in the Federal Register.