In February’s column, I discussed why the Electrical Transmission & Distribution (ET&D) Partnership is an example of an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) cooperative program that has worked out extremely well. I also passed along NECA’s words of appreciation to the agency for providing the framework and support that makes the ET&D Partnership such an undeniable success.
But, NECA has had a lot more to say to OSHA since then.
Our association is a vocal and active participant in the regulatory process. Providing constructive criticism to OSHA to help gain more practical safety rules has been keeping NECA busy since last September. That’s when OSHA proposed cutting in half the permissible exposure level (PEL) for respirable crystalline silica on job sites.
While there’s no question that exposure to silica can be a serious health hazard, NECA—and the more than 1,900 other entities that responded to OSHA’s call for comments—question whether the proposal is practical, cost-effective, workable or if it is needed at all.
To comply with the new PEL, employers would have to perform air sampling for silica exposures for workers who may be exposed to a level of 25 micrograms per cubic meter of air or more, averaged over an eight-hour day. Medical exams would have to be performed every three years for workers exposed above the PEL for 30 or more days per year. There are additional employee training provisions and requirements to maintain air monitoring data, objective data and medical surveillance documents, as well.
But how do you measure silica exposure over eight hours for, say, a lineman who might cut a sidewalk or a concrete pole once a month? As NECA told OSHA, the transient nature of the construction labor pool and the intermittent nature of the performance of tasks that can stir up silica complicates compliance.
The proposal also suggests using engineering controls such as wetting the work area to prevent silica from becoming airborne “unless the employer can demonstrate that such controls are not feasible.” It does not provide much guidance on what is considered “not feasible.” The proposal has been rightly criticized for offering one-size-fits-all recommendations that have not been tested for diverse construction operations.
Complying with this technically demanding rule could financially cripple construction businesses. NECA has asked OSHA to withdraw it.
NECA has also asked OSHA to rethink the proposal released in November to “Improve Tracking of Workplace Injuries and Illnesses” by adding requirements for the electronic submission of injury and illness data. Businesses that employ 250 or more workers would have to electronically submit their data to OSHA every quarter. Establishments with 20 or more employees in certain high-hazard designated industries (including construction) would be required to electronically submit information from their OSHA Form 300A once a year. Companies with multiple work sites would have to submit data for each site. The most controversial suggested change is that OSHA wants to make the information it collects public.
A primary problem with the proposed rule is that it is reactive rather than preventative. Collecting and publishing this data won’t do much to prevent accidents from occurring.
Instead of proposing more unnecessary and burdensome rules, NECA believes OSHA should be encouraging employers to implement practices that identify and document leading indicators of safety performance, such as the frequency of project safety and health inspections, the tracking of safe and unsafe work practices, the percentage of inspection issues that are properly corrected, and the frequency of safety and health communications such as safety meetings, formal safety training sessions and short-duration training sessions.
NECA also pointed out that the rule would impose unnecessary and burdensome administrative tasks on all affected employers and especially on smaller businesses. These employees should instead be provided with tools that use their limited resources to further enhance job site injury and illness prevention.
The proposal’s online disclosure provisions are especially troublesome because injury and illness data can so easily be misinterpreted, misunderstood and misused. The mere recording of an injury doesn’t say much about the employer’s policies, training or commitment to safety. But it might say a lot—and a lot that is wrong—to owners who only accept bids based on their perception of the contractor’s safety performance. Additionally, compliant contractors would be at a competitive disadvantage to those who deliberately hide the numbers so they can make their safety statistics look more appealing.
So NECA believes this proposal also should be withdrawn. We don’t need the aggravation.
What we need from OSHA is education, research and training support to help prevent job site accidents in the first place. We appreciate all the help we get.