MWF: Another Long, Hard Slog
- By Jerry Laws
- Jan 01, 2004
SUING someone seems like a sudden act, an angry impulse, but of course most
lawsuits are the opposite. Case in point: the suit filed by the United Auto
Workers and the United Steelworkers of America against Labor Secretary Elaine
Chao and OSHA. Metalworking fluid exposures have concerned the UAW for many
years; they petitioned for an emergency temporary standard 10 years ago. Long
before heading to the courthouse in October 2003, they were urging OSHA to cut
its MWF exposure limits.
Filing a lawsuit to stop or compel a federal regulation often succeeds. In
fact, litigation probably was the smartest strategy before Congress found a tool
in 2001 to repeal an OSHA standard. The legal sword has cut both ways: One lost
case has stymied OSHA's much-needed update of Permissible Exposure Limits, but
at least three of its standards--addressing formaldehyde, methylene chloride,
and hazardous energy lockout--resulted from court action begun in the early
1980s, said Franklin E. Mirer, Ph.D, director of the UAW Health & Safety
Department. "I think the majority of OSHA's new chemical standards were started
by union petitions," he said.
Mirer was a member of OSHA's Metalworking Fluids Standards Advisory
Committee, which in July 1999 recommended an 8-hour time-weighted average PEL of
0.5 mg/m3 for total particulate mass. NIOSH recommends the same, but
OSHA's PEL is ten times higher: 5 mg/m3 TWA for mineral oil mist (and
15 mg/m3 for other particulates).
A recent study found wheezing, cough, and other respiratory symptoms among
automotive machining workers at average exposures well below 0.5. Re-examining
mortality among workers exposed to MWF before the mid-1970s yielded stronger
evidence than even NIOSH found in 1998 of increased mortality from stomach and
liver cancer, Mirer concluded. (An estimated 1.2 million workers are exposed to
metalworking fluids. A good source for information is NIOSH's www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/metalworking page.)
OSHA has not acted on its advisory committee's recommendation. It has dropped
MWF from its regulatory priority list, according to the lawsuit. Ten years of
fruitless waiting was long enough, the unions decided. "We're hoping to get the
normal proposal and hearing process started again. And we hope that OSHA would
agree to do that without undue delay," said Mirer. "This route is preferable to
never. We're years away, but that's preferable to never."
This article originally appeared in the January 2004 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.
Jerry Laws is Editor of Occupational Health & Safety magazine, which is owned by 1105 Media Inc.