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May 24 — During an industrial hygiene conference May 24, a discussion on how the Occupational Safety and Health Administration collaborates with other federal agencies to regulate chemicals couldn't avoid the politics of the 2016 presidential campaign.
OSHA chief David Michaels recalled how under prior White House administrations, the agency continued to make inspections while rulemakings sometimes stalled when a new president from a different political party took office.
“We will continue to perform great inspections, even when President Trump appoints Mike Rowe (host of the TV reality show ‘Dirty Jobs') to be head of OSHA,” Michaels told an audience at the American Industrial Hygiene Association Convention in Baltimore.
Michaels has already said he will step down as OSHA's leader at the end of the Obama administration in January (46 OSHR 433, 5/5/16).
Michaels said Americans trust the federal government to set workplace requirements, despite the rhetoric that the agency is unconstitutional. He cited a 2015 poll by the Pew Research Center on Americans' opinions about the federal government.
The poll found that 77 percent of Republicans and 79 percent of Democrats said the federal government was doing a good or somewhat good job of setting workplace standards.
“It wouldn't be popular in a change of administration to dramatically change what we do in terms of cutting us back,” Michaels said.
Much of the discussion by Michaels and John Howard, director of OSHA's research-focused sister agency, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, centered on research into on-the-job exposure to chemicals and other hazardous materials and how to protect workers.
Michaels said completion of the silica rule in March enables OSHA to move onto other health-related rulemakings such as setting permissible exposure limits (PELs) for styrene (RIN:1218-AD09) and 1-Bromopopane (RIN:1218-AD05) and examining whether the agency should revoke PELs that are obsolete because they no longer adequately protect workers (RIN:1218-AD01).
For many chemicals, the latest medical research has concluded that PELs need to be stricter than what OSHA rules call for, Michaels said.
OSHA's challenge is that it can't force an employer to adhere to a stricter PEL, unless the rule for that PEL is changed, a process that takes years.
“Chemical by chemical? It's not going to happen,” Michaels told the health professionals.
However, if OSHA sets no PEL for a chemical, it could still prevent workers' over-exposure by using the general duty clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, Michaels said.
To cite employers under the general duty clause, OSHA would need to show the exposure above a specified level was a widely known and medically proven hazard and there were feasible ways to protect workers, Michaels said.
“Just because you have an outdated or no PEL doesn't mean you shouldn't try to protect workers,” the OSHA head said.
NIOSH's Howard agreed with Michaels that many current PELs don't adequately protect workers.
“David deserves a lot credit for saying, ‘The emperor has no clothes,'” Howard said.
Howard said nanoparticles could be the next family of potentially hazardous materials from which NIOSH and OSHA are expected to protect workers.
If the agencies were expected to set nanomaterials exposure limits for each element, that could require setting limits for more than 100 elements, Howard said.
Universities and companies developing new technologies—from biotechnology to collaborative robots—need to examine the safety and health issues of the technologies and not wait for a federal agency to step in, he said.
“You have a responsibility to look at what you do,” Howard said.
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The Pew Research Center survey, “Beyond Distrust: How Americans View Their Government,” is available at http://src.bna.com/fhF.
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