thesynergist | NEWSWATCH
OSHA Mandates COVID-19 Vaccination Policy for Large Employers
An OSHA emergency temporary standard, or ETS, published on Nov. 5 requires employers with 100 or more employees to develop, implement, and enforce a mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy. Employees who choose to remain unvaccinated must undergo regular testing for COVID-19 and wear a face covering at work. Employers are also required to provide paid time off for workers to get vaccinated and paid leave for workers suffering from side effects of the vaccines. Employers are not required to pay for testing but must maintain records of each test result while the ETS is in effect. The rule grants employers covered by the ETS until Dec. 6 to require unvaccinated employees to wear face coverings, and until Jan. 4 to implement mandatory vaccination or weekly testing. But days after the rule's publication, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals temporarily blocked it pending further judicial review. An OSHA press release announcing the ETS states that it covers approximately 84 million workers, or about two thirds of the nation’s private sector workforce. The agency estimates that the rule will save more than 6,500 workers’ lives and prevent more than 250,000 hospitalizations over six months. Some stakeholders have questioned why the ETS covers only employers with 100 or more employees. The rule specifies that OSHA is confident that these employers can meet the standard’s requirements and is seeking to prevent “undue disruptions” these requirements may have caused for smaller employers. An FAQ about the ETS on the OSHA website clarifies that firms with multiple locations should count workers at all facilities toward the 100-employee threshold. Part-time employees, employees who work from home, and seasonal employees also count toward the threshold, while independent contractors do not. Employers covered by the ETS may implement a tiered vaccination mandate that requires only a subset of its workforce—for example, employees who interact with the public—to be vaccinated or submit to regular testing. Such a tiered mandate could exclude employees who work from home. Any employee, regardless of vaccination status, who receives a positive COVID-19 test must be removed from the workplace immediately. The standard does not require employers to provide paid time off to employees who have been removed because of a positive test. Employers who choose to provide unvaccinated employees with respirators in lieu of face coverings must comply with OSHA’s “mini respiratory protection program” as described in a separate ETS promulgated in June. The Occupational Safety and Health Act grants OSHA the authority to issue emergency temporary standards if the agency determines that employees face “grave danger” from exposures at work and that an emergency standard is necessary to protect workers from these exposures. When the agency publishes an ETS in the Federal Register, it serves as a proposed permanent standard subject to the usual rulemaking process except that a final ruling should be made within six months. The validity of an emergency temporary standard may be challenged in an appropriate U.S. Court of Appeals. The full text of the rule is available from the Federal Register. In addition to the FAQ, other compliance materials are available from the OSHA website.
OSHA Launches Regional Emphasis Program in Three States
A new Regional Emphasis Program established by OSHA is intended to help reduce worker exposure to substances such as asbestos, formaldehyde, and cadmium in industries where inspections have found these exposures to occur. Additional substances associated with long latency periods—such as benzene, beryllium, and ethylene oxide—are also included in the program. The program went into effect in October and will affect workplaces located in OSHA region 7, which includes Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska. OSHA’s press release announcing the Regional Emphasis Program explains that it will target the top 50 high health hazard industries from fiscal year 2021, which include lessors of residential buildings and dwellings and a variety of manufacturing industries. The Regional Emphasis Program is set to expire in September 2026. For further details, see OSHA’s press release and the instruction (PDF) implementing the program.
CDC Highlights Cases of Anthrax Pneumonia in Welders, Metalworkers
Since 1994, seven people in the U.S. have been infected with Bacillus cereus group bacteria containing anthrax toxin genes resulting in pneumonia, according to a report published by CDC. The affected individuals had all worked as welders or metalworkers in Louisiana or Texas. B. cereus group bacteria often produce toxins, are ubiquitous in the environment, and reside naturally in soil and dust. According to CDC, five of the patients died and two had “critical illness with prolonged hospitalization and recovery.” One of the patients who recovered was a welder who worked in Louisiana and was infected in 2020. Another welder who worked in Texas was also infected last year and died of pneumonia.
“Understanding the extent to which Bacillus species other than B. anthracis carry anthrax toxin genes and whether their geographic range extends beyond the U.S. Gulf Coast states is limited,” the report explains. “Furthermore, little is known about why these highly fatal pneumonia cases have only been detected among welders and other metalworkers.”
Despite limited knowledge of this issue, the report’s authors urge employers and others to take action to decrease the risk for lung infection, including anthrax pneumonia, among these metalworkers. According to CDC, employers should educate workers about the hazards associated with welding and protective measures for minimizing potential exposures. The agency also suggests targeted outreach to increase workers’ awareness about pulmonary infections, especially in U.S. Gulf Coast states such as Louisiana and Texas.
Further details and recommendations are available in CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
NIOSH Publishes Update to Revised Lifting Equation Manual
An updated version of the Applications Manual for the Revised NIOSH Lifting Equation was published by NIOSH in September. The revised NIOSH lifting equation, or RNLE, is an ergonomic risk assessment tool that can be used to assess the risk of low-back disorders associated with manual lifting tasks. The manual is intended to guide users on how to use the RNLE. The 2021 manual has been reformatted to be searchable and contains improved graphics and tables. Some typographical errors from the previous version have been corrected.
The updated manual is also compliant with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. As explained in a
article about the basics of Section 508 compliance, Section 508 “states that each federal department or agency has a duty to provide federal employees with disabilities—and disabled members of the public seeking federally-provided services—complete access to and use of online information, comparable to that accessible to individuals without disabilities.”
The RNLE is also available as a mobile app, NLE Calc, which is intended to help workers in industries such as manufacturing, healthcare, and retail stay safe when manually lifting objects on the job. Workers can enter data about a lifting task into the app, which will provide recommendations to help them optimize the task or perform it differently to prevent injury.
Both the updated manual and the NLE Calc app can be found via NIOSH’s website.
Updated Information on Robot System Safety Published in OSHA Manual
Updated information on robot system safety in workplaces is now published in the OSHA Technical Manual, the agency announced on October 15 via its e-newsletter. The updated information can be found in Chapter Four of Section Four, which is intended as a guide to robot systems found in industrial applications. OSHA describes industrial robots as “programmable multifunctional mechanical devices designed to move material, parts, tools, or specialized devices through variable programmed motions to perform a variety of tasks.” The Technical Manual section on industrial robot system safety describes the basic components of industrial robot systems as well as the structure of industrial robots and their applications. Additional information includes hazards associated with industrial robots and safety considerations for employers and workers.
For more information, see the manual’s section on industrial robot systems or OSHA’s webpage on robotics.
European Chemicals Agency Proposes OEL for Isoprene
A new draft scientific report (PDF) published by the European Chemicals Agency includes ECHA’s recommendations regarding an occupational exposure limit for isoprene, which is primarily used as a chemical intermediate to manufacture polymers. The agency recommends an OEL of 3 ppm (8.5 mg/m3) as an eight-hour time-weighted average. According to ECHA, workers at facilities where isoprene or synthetic rubber is produced or used may be exposed to isoprene through inhalation and dermal contact. Stakeholders are invited to comment on ECHA’s report until Dec.12.
ECHA’s draft report indicates that it evaluated other organizations’ approaches as it worked on the proposed OEL, including AIHA’s Workplace Environmental Exposure Level for isoprene. WEELs are airborne concentration limits that provide guidance for protecting most workers from adverse health effects related to occupational chemical exposures. In 2004, an AIHA committee proposed a WEEL for isoprene of 2 ppm as an eight-hour TWA.
“The [AIHA WEEL Committee] noted that isoprene is clearly carcinogenic in animal assays,” ECHA’s report explains. “The committee noted, however, that neurotoxic effects have been observed at lower inhalation exposure levels than carcinogenic effects and derived an OEL based on those effects.”
Since 2013, the development of WEELs has been managed by the nonprofit organization Toxicology Excellence for Risk Assessment. The table of WEEL values is available on the TERA website.
More information about isoprene is available from PubChem, a chemistry database at the National Institutes of Health. A table on ECHA’s website summarizes the agency’s work related to OELs.
NIOSH to Develop Fatigue-Reduction Tool for Taxi Drivers
A new research project proposed by NIOSH will focus on reducing fatigue among taxi drivers. The project will involve the development of a fatigue management elearning training tool designed for taxi drivers, ride-sourcing drivers, and other drivers for hire. A second part of the study will evaluate the effectiveness of the training tool.
“Fatigue is a significant contributor to transportation-related injuries, most notably among shift workers,” the Federal Register notice outlining the project explains. “Such work schedules and inadequate sleep likely contribute to health issues and injuries among taxi drivers, who experience a roadway fatality rate 3.5 times higher than all civilian workers and had the highest rate of nonfatal work-related motor vehicle injuries treated in emergency departments.”
Researchers plan to study the effectiveness of the newly developed training alone compared with the effectiveness of the training when paired with a wrist-worn device that provides personalized daily fatigue scores. The wristband “actigraphs” worn by participants will measure sleep/wake cycles and assess individuals’ fatigue levels, prompting drivers to reflect on their fitness to drive and act accordingly. NIOSH’s proposed study will involve approximately 500 participants. Researchers’ goal will be to inform drivers for hire of the risks associated with shift work and long work hours and evaluate strategies for drivers to reduce these risks.
More information about the study can be found in the Federal Register.
EPA Extends Deadlines for Health, Safety Data Reporting for 50 Chemicals
Manufacturers and importers of 50 chemicals will have additional time to report data from certain unpublished health and safety studies to EPA, the agency announced in September. The reporting requirement stems from a final rule EPA published in June. The chemicals affected by this action include 20 chemicals designated by EPA as “high-priority” substances that are being evaluated for risk under the Toxic Substances Control Act and 30 organohalogen flame retardants being evaluated for health risks by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) under the Federal Hazardous Substances Act. The new rule also requires manufacturers to submit to EPA unpublished studies on occupational, general population, and consumer exposure for these chemicals.
Manufacturers of the 20 high-priority substances, which include formaldehyde and 1,3-butadiene, now have until Dec.1 to submit studies on these chemicals to EPA. The submission deadline for manufacturers of the 30 organohalogen flame retardants being evaluated by CPSC is now Jan. 25, 2022.
A full list of the 50 chemicals can be found in the text of EPA’s final rule. For more information, see the EPA webpage on health and safety data reporting for these chemicals.
Guidance Outlines Recommendations for Infection Prevention and Control Plans
A new document published by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) Worker Training Program outlines guidance for building an occupational infection prevention and control plan for COVID-19 and other infectious diseases. The document lists key elements for employers to consider including in their infection prevention and control plans to facilitate readiness and preparedness in the workplace. According to NIEHS, written infection prevention and control plans for occupational settings should be comprehensive yet adaptable, tailored to meet industry and site-specific needs, based on a comprehensive workplace risk assessment, and monitored to ensure effectiveness.
The guidance stresses that engineering controls such as ventilation are important but not likely to be effective on their own. “Therefore, plans should also consider factors that affect airflow at the worker level,” the document states, “including where they are physically, what tasks are being performed, and what barriers in the vicinity might impede proper airflow and increase risk of exposure.”
The NIEHS document also provides a list of templates for model plans. View all of NIEHS’ recommendations in its new COVID-19 brief (PDF).
NIOSH Finds Inconsistent Use of Hearing Protection Among Noise-Exposed Workers
More than 50 percent of workers exposed to noise in 2014 did not wear hearing protection consistently, a study conducted by NIOSH researchers has found. Published in October 2021 in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, the study shows that inconsistent use of hearing protection was more prevalent in industries that have fewer noise-exposed workers.
NIOSH researchers analyzed data from more than 39,000 adult workers who responded to the 2007 and 2014 National Health Interview Surveys. Researchers found that 80 percent of noise-exposed workers in the finance and insurance industry and 83 percent in the healthcare and social assistance industry reported that they did not always wear hearing protection. These industries are among those with the lowest incidence of occupational noise exposure.
The industry with the greatest proportion of noise-exposed workers who used hearing protection inconsistently was accommodation and food services at 90 percent. Some industries where noise is a well-recognized hazard also had a large proportion of workers who reported inconsistent use of hearing protection—for example, 74 percent of noise-exposed workers in agriculture, forestry, fishing, and hunting, and 52 percent in construction.
The study also found that greater proportions of female workers, young workers, and current smokers did not always wear hearing protection devices compared to other workers.
The authors call for employers to offer a variety of hearing protection devices to workers and require their use. Further details about the study are available in a NIOSH news release.
Study Examines Risk of Breakthrough Infections for People with Substance Use Disorders
Vaccinated people with a substance use disorder are more likely than other vaccinated people to experience breakthrough infections of COVID-19 and their outcomes are more likely to be severe, according to a study led by researchers from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), which is part of the National Institutes of Health. The study of approximately 580,000 fully vaccinated people found that 7 percent of those with substance use disorders had a breakthrough infection, compared to 3.6 percent of those without substance use disorders.
The increased risk appears to be the result of underlying health conditions such as high blood pressure, heart disease, and obesity, and socioeconomic factors such as housing or employment instability, which occur more often in individuals with substance use disorders. When controlling for these factors, the excess risk for people with most substance abuse disorders disappears. However, individuals with cannabis use disorder remained 55 percent more likely to have a breakthrough infection than people without substance use disorders. The effects of cannabis on lung function may play a role in this increased risk, according to the study’s authors.
NIDA Director Nora D. Volkow, MD, an author of the study, affirmed that overall, the risk of COVID-19 infections in people with substance use disorders is low and that the health community should still encourage COVID-19 vaccination among these individuals.
For more information, read NIH’s news release or the full study in World Psychiatry.
European Chemicals Agency Proposes OELs for 1,4-Dioxane
A new scientific report (PDF) published by the European Chemicals Agency includes ECHA’s recommendations regarding occupational exposure limits for the solvent 1,4-dioxane. The agency recommends an OEL of 6 ppm (22 mg/m3) as an eight-hour time-weighted average and a short-term exposure limit of 20 ppm (73 mg/m3). The recommended STEL matches the current indicative OEL value for 1,4-dioxane at the European Union level. The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work describes indicative OEL values as “health-based, non-binding values, derived from the most recent scientific data available and taking into account the availability of reliable measurement techniques.”
In high concentrations, 1,4-dioxane causes irritation of the nose, eyes, and throat in humans. ECHA’s report explains that, in the worst case, nasal irritation may be followed by inflammation, hyperplasia, and tumor formation, so limiting short-term exposure is relevant.
ECHA is also recommending a biological limit value, or BLV, using 2-hydroxyethoxyacetic acid in urine as a biomarker. The agency’s proposed BLV for 1,4-dioxane is 120 mg 2-hydroxyethoxyacetic acid/g creatinine in urine. Because 1,4-dioxane may be absorbed through the skin, ECHA also recommends a skin notation for the chemical. For more information, an “infocard” on 1,4-dioxane is also available.
NIOSH Recognizes Innovations in Protecting Health, Safety of Mine Workers
Four organizations have received NIOSH’s 2021 Mine Safety and Health Technology Innovations Awards, which recognize companies’ efforts to improve the health and safety of mine workers in four industry sectors: coal; stone, sand, and gravel; metals; and industrial minerals. Two of the companies were recognized for developing new safety tools and systems; the other two were honored for establishing new health protocols to keep workers safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Matrix Design Group won in the coal category for combining multiple technologies to improve proximity detection for battery scoops in underground mines. Lehigh Hanson Lowrys Quarry won the stone, sand, and gravel award for retrofitting a haul truck to improve air quality in the operator cab to comply with ISO 23875 requirements. Coeur Mining Inc. was recognized in the metal category for implementing a comprehensive pandemic response plan to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 at their work sites. Imerys Performance Minerals Americas–North American Division was honored in the industrial metals category for introducing contact-tracing technology at their work sites to manage social distancing and track exposures to COVID-19.
More information is available on NIOSH’s website.