Wait and See: 2017 OSHA Outlook

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) unveiled its annual regulatory agenda at its semiannual meeting. This year, the agency is attempting to tackle considerably more initiatives than in the past. The question is how the economy, the political climate and the 2016 presidential election will affect these policy goals.

New rules

Though there are challenges ahead, OSHA made significant progress in 2016. The agency issued a final rule for general industry in August on walking/working surfaces—specifically addressing slip, trip and fall hazards. The new rule enables employers to select fall-protection equipment that suits them best and better aligns protections with the standards in construction. This should make compliance easier for contractors trying to satisfy both sets of regulations, since general industry rules govern their activity when performing maintenance work. The rule went into effect this month.

In an OSHA news release on the final rule, David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for OSHA, said, “Advances in technology and greater flexibility will reduce worker deaths and injuries from falls.”

OSHA estimates the changes will save nearly 30 lives and prevent more than 5,000 injuries every year.

OSHA’s updated recordkeeping rule has had a significant effect on employers. The rule’s intent is to improve tracking of workplace injuries and illnesses. To accomplish this, OSHA will require covered employers to submit records electronically. Antiretaliation clauses will make employers take a close look at certain elements of their current safety programs, including incentives, drug testing practices and disciplinary measures.

The antiretaliation provisions became effective Aug. 10, 2016, but OSHA delayed enforcement until Dec. 1. The electronic submission components took effect on Jan. 1, 2017. It states that employers with 250 or more employees at an establishment must electronically submit OSHA 300 Log, OSHA 301 Incident Report and OSHA 300A summary. Employers with 25–249 employees will need to submit the OSHA 300A data. Compliance will be phased in over the next two years. The first reports are due in July 2017 and only include 300A data from all covered employers.

“With the changes in this rule, employers, employees, the government and researchers will have better access to data that will encourage earlier abatement of hazards and result in improved programs to reduce workplace hazards and prevent injuries, illnesses and fatalities,” Michaels said.

In addition, OSHA issued a controversial final rule updating crystalline silica requirements. The most significant change is a reduction in the permissible exposure limits from 250 micrograms for construction and 100 micrograms for general industry of silica dust per cubic centimeter down to 50 micrograms for both construction and general industry.

Other changes include periodic measuring for silica and medical testing requirements, more stringent monitoring practices and the implementation of certain engineering controls to reduce silica levels.

“This rule will save lives,” said U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez. “It will enable workers to earn a living without sacrificing their health. It builds upon decades of research and a lengthy stakeholder engagement process—including the consideration of thousands of public comments—to finally give workers the kind of protection they deserve.”

OSHA estimates that, after the rule becomes effective on June 23, 2017, it will save more than 600 lives, prevent more than 900 new cases of silicosis and provide net benefits of roughly $7.7 billion per year.

OSHA issued a proposed rule that would modify respiratory-protection requirements and change fit-testing protocols for respirators in October . It would apply to employers in the general, shipyard and construction industries. Industry comments were due in December. The next steps in the rulemaking process are likely to take place sometime in the first half of this year.

OSHA’s Standards Improvement Project IV will update and streamline 18 existing standards. One of these rules looks to remove the term “unexpected” from the lockout/tagout regulations. Another key provision will remove the need to supply Social Security numbers for tracking.

“The changes we propose will modernize OSHA standards, help employers better understand their responsibilities, increase compliance and reduce compliance costs,” Michaels said. “Most importantly, these revisions will improve the safety and health protections afforded to workers across all industries.”

Industry comments were due at the beginning of this month, and the next stage should take place later this year. 

New requirements raise the qualifications necessary to operate cranes and derricks. The rule originally was issued in 2010 but was extended to Nov. 10, 2017.

On the agenda

OSHA’s regulatory agenda for 2017 contains a number of actions up for consideration. This includes 19 at the prerule stage, meaning the agency is gathering information to create a new standard or make changes to an old one. Four of these may affect electricians, linemen or wiremen: noise in construction, communication tower safety, blood-borne pathogens and combustible dusts.

“Two recent studies of occupational hearing loss conducted by Department of Energy and National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health concluded that a significant percentage of construction workers have suffered from hearing loss over the duration of their careers,” OSHA stated in a press release. “It has been noted that construction work is excluded from the OSHA Hearing Conservation Amendment that is required for general industry work. Also, existing construction noise requirements lack the specificity of a general hearing conservation program that must be implemented for general industry work.”

OSHA recorded 91 fatalities and 17 injuries from incidents involving communication towers from 2003 through 2013. Most of the fatalities (79) and injuries (13) were due to falls.

As a result, the agency is gathering information and working with the Federal Communications Commission on industry best practices, safety practices, certifications, training and current industry consensus standards on communication towers. This is likely in preparation to begin developing a proposed standard on communication tower safety.

OSHA is conducting similar efforts around infectious diseases and combustible dusts. Although there is no standard in place for combustible dust, the National Fire Protection Association has a voluntary combustible dust standard that employers can use.

There are a number of rules in the proposed stage, with ongoing efforts to modify existing standards. For example, one addresses occupational exposure to beryllium. The proposed rule would lower the eight-hour permissible exposure limit for beryllium from 2.0 micrograms per cubic meter to 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter, a 90 percent reduction. The proposal would also establish medical surveillance and additional training requirements.

What to expect from the government

When President Obama issued his fiscal year (FY) 2017 Department of Labor Budget Request, he asked for an additional $42 million in funding for OSHA from FY 2016 levels. The money would provide for 100 new full-time staff members, 60 of whom doing regulatory enforcement. With the funding, OSHA anticipated conducting 35,352 inspections in 2017.

In addition to enforcement, OSHA hoped to expand whistleblower protection programs and increase funding for the development of safety and health standards.

Perhaps these requests were destined for failure. Since House and Senate appropriators failed to pass a FY 2017 spending bill, they passed a continuing resolution extending FY 2016 funding levels through Apr. 28, 2017. That said, Congress will need to agree early on about funding that will run through the entire fiscal year and find a way to develop a spending plan for FY 2018.

With Donald Trump’s inauguration as president on Jan. 20, OSHA’s direction is uncertain, but its policy goals will probably change. He has publicly pledged to repeal 70–80 percent of all regulations on business. Also, there will likely be cuts in funding to those types of activities whether directed by the president or Congress.

It is unlikely, despite speculation, that a Trump administration would kill many existing regulations and force a departure from strict enforcement strategies. This drastic change would be a full 180-degree turn from the direction OSHA had been going for the past several years. It will be hard to change the current mindset of the full-time staff at OSHA. It is also a matter of Trump reconciling his campaign promise to look out for and protect the blue-collar American worker.

Given all these unknowns, it is mostly a wait-and-see situation entering the new year. We will have a better idea of what to expect once confirmation hearings begin for the Labor Secretary nominee, fast-food executive Andrew Puzder. It will be interesting to see how OSHA fares under the new administration. Regardless, it will be a challenge for OSHA to achieve all of its policy goals for the year. As always, the focus will be to reduce the number of injuries, illnesses and fatalities in the workplace.

For more information, visit www.osha.gov. For assistance with OSHA’s recordkeeping rule, consult NECA’s eSafetyLine Recordkeeping Service or visit www.esafetyline.com/neca.

About the Author

Tom O'Connor

Safety Columnist
Tom O'Connor is safety and regulatory affairs manager for Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm that offers on-site assistance and produces manuals, training videos and software for contractors. He has significant experience workin...

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