thesynergist | NEWSWATCH
OSHA Initiates Rulemaking Process for Workplace Standard on Heat
An advance notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPRM) published in October launched OSHA’s rulemaking process for a standard to protect workers from heat hazards. The ANPRM on heat injury and illness prevention covers both outdoor and indoor work settings. In response to requests from stakeholders, OSHA has extended the comment period on the ANPRM to Jan. 26. The agency seeks feedback and technical expertise on topics such as heat stress thresholds, heat acclimatization planning, exposure monitoring, strategies to protect workers from heat hazards, the scope of the standard, and the types of controls it might require. Excessive heat can cause heat stroke and death if not promptly treated and can worsen existing health problems such as heart disease, asthma, and kidney failure. From 1992 through 2019, heat stress killed 907 workers in the United States and work-related heat injuries and illnesses accounted for more than 31,000 days away from work, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The ANPRM cites information from EPA that suggests the true incidence of occupational heat illness is much higher than indicated by reported numbers. Reasons for the disparity between actual and reported numbers include misdiagnosis of symptoms such as headache and fatigue, and the lack of a requirement for employers to report all instances of heat-related illness. EPA also predicts that climate change will exacerbate the effects of heat and result in increases in the number of work hours lost to heat-related illness. In parts of the Southwest and Southern Great Plains, work hours lost could exceed 84 per year for each weather-exposed worker, according to EPA. The NIOSH document Criteria for a Recommended Standard: Occupational Exposure to Heat and Hot Environments (PDF), which the agency last updated in 2016, calls for the establishment of occupational exposure limits for heat stress. NIOSH proposed “recommended alert limits,” or RALs, for workers unacclimatized to heat, and recommended exposure limits for acclimatized workers. Both RALs and RELs are based on wet-bulb globe temperature, or WBGT, a measurement that incorporates air temperature, wind, radiant heat, and humidity. NIOSH proposed that WBGT measurements be taken hourly. The ANPRM does not indicate whether OSHA is considering incorporating the RALs and RELs in its standard. The ANPRM is among multiple new measures to protect workers from heat hazards recently announced by OSHA. In September, OSHA established a new enforcement initiative to prioritize heat-related interventions and agency inspections of work activities on days when the heat index exceeds 80 F. The agency is also forming a National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health Heat Injury and Illness Prevention Work Group and developing a new National Emphasis Program (NEP) on heat hazard cases. The goal of the new work group will be to improve understanding of challenges related to heat hazards and identify best practices for protecting workers. OSHA intends to complete the data review for its new NEP in time for it to take effect before summer 2022. OSHA’s ANPRM can be found in the Federal Register. More information on OSHA’s heat-related activities can be found in the agency’s press release.
Biden Announces Nominee to Head MSHA
President Joe Biden has nominated Christopher J. Williamson, senior counsel to the chairman of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), as assistant secretary for mine safety and health and head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Prior to his work at NLRB, Williamson served in the Obama-Biden administration as a member of the senior leadership team at MSHA. The White House’s statement notes that Williamson also previously worked as labor counsel to former Senator Tom Harkin, when Harkin chaired the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, and as legislative assistant to Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia. The previous head of MSHA, David G. Zatezalo, resigned in January 2021. If confirmed, Williamson will replace Jeannette J. Galanis, the acting assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health. Galanis, who also serves as the agency’s deputy assistant secretary for policy, was appointed by President Biden in February 2021.
NIEHS Worker Training Program Releases Fact Sheet on SARS-CoV-2 Variants
The Worker Training Program (WTP) of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences has published a fact sheet (PDF) that provides information on SARS-CoV-2 variants. The document explains that viruses naturally adapt over time to survive and remain infectious. According to the fact sheet, these new variants do not change how the virus works but can affect how contagious it is, its ability to evade human immune system responses, and the ease with which it can cause illness or spread from person to person. As of early December, the most common variant of SARS-CoV-2 circulating in the U.S. is the delta variant, named after the fourth letter of the Greek alphabet. The NIEHS fact sheet was published in early November, prior to the discovery of the omicron variant later that month.
Some variants, like delta, can cause more severe infections that result in greater numbers of hospitalizations and death, WTP explains. Unvaccinated people and worker populations that serve the public or work in crowded or small spaces are particularly vulnerable.
Research on the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 variants is ongoing, but CDC states that vaccines continue to be effective against the delta variant. WTP’s fact sheet urges workplaces to focus on vaccination to reduce transmission and symptom severity and to maintain other COVID-19 controls, such as effective ventilation and physical distancing.
The fact sheet states that vaccine effectiveness is measured by reduction in infections, symptom severity, hospitalizations, and death, and that vaccines are “still a very effective intervention that provides protection for workers.”
EU Study Reviews Health Risks Associated with Telework During COVID-19 Pandemic
In October, the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) published a report on occupational mental and physical health issues associated with teleworking during the COVID-19 pandemic. Based on interviews with workers in Italy, Spain, and France conducted from February to May 2021, the study’s authors found that the extended and prolonged teleworking experience required reassessment of traditional assumptions about psychosocial health effects associated with teleworking. For most employees, stress brought on by increased workload and periods of irregular or extended work abated after the initial period of adjustment. Employees generally reported a loss of quality interpersonal communication and collaboration, but some “medium-skilled” workers felt they received more recognition while teleworking.
Those in occupations requiring face-to-face interaction continued to experience stress. In some cases, working mothers with school-aged children at home reported stress, anxiety, and guilt. Employees also described physical issues such as neck pain and eye strain associated with increased sedentarism and poor ergonomic conditions at home.
The report’s authors state that the negative health effects associated with telework can be counterbalanced by increased work autonomy; improved organizational support, such as providing employees with ergonomic equipment; and better dialogue and collective bargaining between employees and organizations. The authors recommend hybrid work arrangements to provide a balance between telework flexibility and face-to-face interaction after the pandemic.
More information and access to a PDF of the report can be found on EU-OSHA’s highlights and executive summary pages.
NIOSH to Consider Establishing "Centers of Excellence" for Personal Protective Technology
NIOSH announced in the Federal Register on Nov. 2 that the agency is exploring whether to establish “centers of excellence” to support research and practice in the area of personal protective technology (PPT), including personal protective equipment. The Federal Register notice includes a request for information from NIOSH, which seeks public comment regarding the scope of these potential centers of excellence. NIOSH’s National Personal Protective Technology Laboratory has identified three areas of focus that future centers of excellence could address: researching and developing new technologies and approaches to PPT; evaluating factors that influence the adoption and use of PPT, including human factors and ergonomics; and innovating PPT design, manufacture, and maintenance.
Interested parties have until Jan. 31, 2022, to submit feedback to NIOSH in response to its request for information. More information is available in the Federal Register notice.
Fentanyl Detection Standards Have Emergency-Response Applications
Three fentanyl detection standards that were published in July 2021 by ASTM International are intended to help protect first responders in the field, according to a news release published on Oct. 14 by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate (S&T). First responders encounter synthetic opioids at an “alarming frequency,” says S&T, which provided funding and subject matter expertise for the standards. These standards will help provide first responders with “more robust detection capabilities that will better inform and protect them from hazardous substances they encounter in the field,” explains Dr. Rosanna Anderson, who leads S&T’s program for opioid and fentanyl detection.
Standard specification ASTM E3243-21 provides system designers, manufacturers, integrators, procurement personnel, end-users, practitioners, and responsible authorities a common set of parameters to match the capabilities of chemical detection tools with user needs for their specific application. ASTM E3289-21, Standard Guide for Using Equipment and Assays for Field Detection of Fentanyl and Fentanyl-Related Compounds, provides information on the optimal use and limitations of assays and instrumentation designed to detect fentanyl and related compounds. And standard test method ASTM 3290-21 describes a procedure for characterizing the performance of field portable fentanyl detection equipment and assays when using test samples and statistical considerations described in standard specification ASTM E3243-21.
S&T states that first responders’ ability to identify fentanyl and related substances using reliable equipment and standardized methods “enables them to effectively plan and conduct operations while simultaneously increasing responder safety.”
NIOSH Releases Guide for Electronic Collection of Occupational Data for Health
NIOSH has published a technical report titled “A Guide to the Collection of Occupational Data for Health: Tips for Health IT System Developers” (PDF). This document is primarily intended to help information technology (IT) professionals implement collection of Occupational Data for Health (ODH), a framework for self-reported, structured, and standardized patient work information, in electronic health records and other systems. According to the report, work information can be collected in healthcare settings for medical or personal health records for different reasons. The technical report describes ODH as “broadly applicable to healthcare as part of the medical record” as well as “suitable for many use cases supporting patient care, population health, and public health.”
Within seven topics—employment status, retirement dates, past and present jobs, longest held work, volunteer work, combat zone periods, and work performed by a minor for a family-run business—NIOSH’s report outlines tips for electronically collecting and organizing relevant data. According to the agency, this data may have applications for improving patient health outcomes after occupational illness or injury.
“If the demands of a patient’s job are known, a more successful return to work may be achieved,” the document explains. “Work-related illnesses are more likely identified when a person’s work information is known and cases can be reported to public health authorities, supporting interventions and the reduction of further exposures.”
For more information or to download a PDF of the technical report, visit NIOSH’s website.
Canadian Research Center Publishes Guide to Hybrid Work
A Canadian occupational health and safety research center, the Institut de recherche Robert-Sauvé en santé et en sécurité du travail (IRSST), has published Returning to the Office After the COVID-19 Health Crisis: An Approach to Transitioning to a New Organization of Work. The free guide, available in English and French, proposes a practical method for planning employees’ transition to a work environment incorporating both remote and in-person arrangements.
IRSST researchers highlight the individualized ways that employees adjusted to the COVID-19 pandemic and encourage employers to take a participatory approach to return-to-work plans. The guide is intended to be adaptable and will be updated as additional information becomes available.
This publication is part of a report that IRSST plans to publish in full in 2022. IRSST’s project and news update webpages offer more information about the report and access to free PDFs.
CDC Lowers Blood Lead Reference Value for Children
CDC has lowered the blood lead reference value (BLRV) for children from 5 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood to 3.5 µg/dL, the agency announced in its Oct. 29 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. The BLRV is intended to identify children with elevated blood lead levels. According to CDC, this reference value is based on the 97.5th percentile of blood lead values among U.S. children aged 1 to 5 years from data collected from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). The initial BLRV, established in 2012, was based on data from the 2007–2008 and 2009–2010 NHANES cycles. The updated BLRV, derived from 2015–2016 and 2017–2018 data, indicates that 2.5 percent of young children in the U.S. have blood lead levels greater than or equal to 3.5 µg/dL.
“The BLRV should be used as a guide to empower public health partners to determine whether medical or environmental follow-up actions should be initiated for an individual child with BLLs between 3.5 and 5 µg/dL who previously would not have been recommended to receive these services until their BLL reached 5 µg/dL,” CDC’s report explains.
CDC became involved in defining the criteria for interpreting blood lead levels in children in 1971, when 40 µg/dL was considered evidence of "undue or increased lead absorption." That determination was lowered to 30 µg/dL in 1975.
The interpretation of blood lead levels in children changed several times in ensuing years. In 1978, 30 µg/dL was referred to as an "elevated blood lead level." This determination was lowered to 25 µg/dL in 1985. Six years later, 10 µg/dL was identified as a "level of concern."
For more information, visit CDC’s website.
Senate Confirms Head of OSHA
In a 50–41 vote on Oct. 25, the U.S. Senate confirmed Doug Parker, who most recently served as chief of California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA), as the assistant secretary of labor for OSHA. The agency was without a permanent administrator after David Michaels resigned in 2017. Parker will take over from acting OSHA administrator Jim Frederick, an AIHA member with three decades of experience providing occupational health and safety leadership to North American labor unions.
Prior to leading Cal/OSHA, Parker was executive director of Worksafe, a legal services provider based in Oakland, California. He also focused on worker health and safety issues as a member of the Biden-Harris transition team, served as deputy assistant secretary for policy at the Mine Safety and Health Administration during the Obama administration, and was a senior policy advisor and special assistant at the Department of Labor.
As related in an Oct. 26 press release, AIHA CEO Lawrence D. Sloan welcomed Parker as head of OSHA, saying that “AIHA looks forward to working with Mr. Parker toward our shared goal of protecting the health and safety of workers throughout the nation.”
WHO Urges Better Protection of Health Workers from COVID, Burnout
Governments and stakeholders must take action to better protect health and care workers from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Health Organization urges in a statement (PDF) issued jointly with partners that included the International Labor Organization. The statement outlines the organizations’ concerns related to health and care worker illnesses and deaths due to COVID-19 and risks of experiencing burnout, stress, anxiety, and fatigue. A WHO working paper published in September estimates that between 80,000 and 180,000 health and care workers could have died globally from COVID-19 from January 2020 to May 2021. Health and care workers’ exposure to heavy, long working hours and human suffering and death have led to increased levels of anxiety, distress, fatigue, and occupational burnout among these workers, the joint statement says. Heightened stigmatization of health and care workers and increased physical and psychological violence against them are additional concerns highlighted by WHO and its partners.
The joint statement urges governments, leaders, and policymakers to strengthen the monitoring and reporting of COVID-19 infections, illness, and deaths among health and care workers. Stakeholders should also make regulatory, policy, and investment decisions to protect health and care workers during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, the organizations state.
The joint statement also asks leaders and policymakers to accelerate COVID-19 vaccination among health and care workers in all countries. “It is imperative that health and care workers must get adequate protection to be able to do their jobs safely,” the statement reads.
More information about the efforts of WHO and its partners is available in a WHO news release.
Fact Sheet Collects Resources on Protecting Workers During Disaster Response
The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences’ (NIEHS) Worker Training Program (WTP) has published a fact sheet (PDF) outlining the program’s participation in disaster response and recovery over its 30-year history. WTP supports response efforts related to natural and human-caused disasters and public health emergencies by providing grant funding to nonprofit organizations that develop health and safety training resources. The fact sheet collects links to training tools and other resources intended to help occupational and environmental health and safety professionals and others ensure the safety and health of workers in the aftermath of disasters.
Since WTP’s establishment in 1986, more than four million emergency response and hazardous waste cleanup workers have received training from programs funded by WTP. The fact sheet summarizes WTP’s involvement in responding to major disasters, including the COVID-19 pandemic, several major hurricanes, and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Through WTP, NIEHS provides technical support for developing site-specific health and safety training, training for target worker populations, training regarding mental health and stress, and other assistance in the form of respirator fit testing and distributing personal protective equipment. WTP’s National Clearinghouse for Worker Safety and Health Training also develops and maintains training resources for disasters and public health emergencies.
More information on WTP and its resources can be found on the program’s website.