MWF: Another Long, Hard Slog

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 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.

About the Author

Jerry Laws is Editor of Occupational Health & Safety magazine, which is owned by 1105 Media Inc.

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