2009 Starts Now

What OSHA hasn’t done has been much discussed this year, but I believe our focus is about to change. The 2009 shift to an active OSHA may be dramatic or subtle, depending on how the Nov. 4 elections affect congressional oversight and appropriations committees and then on how quickly a new president and Congress act. However it goes, a foundation has been laid for forcing OSHA to publish standards on combustible dust, diacetyl exposure, and perhaps oil & gas drilling safety and other recent concerns, said Margaret “Peg” Seminario, director of the AFL-CIO’s Department of Occupational Safety and Health. She’s hopeful about 2009.

“This Congress is pretty much over. I think there was a real interest in looking at the enforcement side of things with OSHA, both their record and their authority,” Seminario said during our Sept. 16 interview. She said Sen. Ted Kennedy’s brain cancer slowed the work of his HELP Committee on that issue, but Kennedy hopes to return in January 2009 to pursue it.

“When you look at oil and gas well drilling, you see the fatality numbers are high and the rates are quite high. You look at the injury data, and it all comes in very low, which you know isn’t true,” Seminario said. But unless a worker dies or files a complaint, it is difficult for OSHA to inspect this booming sector, she added. “For many years, there’s been a prohibition on OSHA for conducting routine enforcement inspections among small employers and industries with low injury rates. Because the reported rates for oil and gas drilling are so low, and many are small employers, it’s difficult for OSHA to police them even though their fatalities are high.”

Fall prevention for wind power turbine construction and maintenance crews may soon be another OSHA priority, given rapid growth for that industry and the recent problem of falls among telecommunication tower workers, she said. “Clearly, there are areas that need to be looked at, without question. In trying to look ahead to where the hazards are and to see where the potential growth of the economy is—and the potential for increased fatalities— we would hope that this is something OSHA would be looking at. But, unfortunately, they have tended to be quite reactive. I guess we’re lucky if they’re reactive because, in recent years, they haven’t even done that.”

Workplace safety and politics merge this month, with the outcome of many contests affecting next year’s workplace safety priorities. An activist OSHA is coming soon, I agree. To read GAO’s assessment of challenges facing the next president and Congress, visit www.gao.gov/new.items/d081153t.pdf.

This article originally appeared in the November 2008 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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