2000-2009: The Decade in Safety & Health
The H1N1 pandemic was 2009's biggest safety and health story, but OSHA also grabbed the spotlight last year with a blockbuster $87 million fine. For all of the attention paid to tower crane safety, combustible dusts, crumbling infrastructure, and a jobless recovery, the biggest story of 2000-2009 was Sept. 11, 2001.
Summing up a decade of major developments in safety and health is guaranteed to omit many important items. We can begin by saying almost no one worried about texting while driving as a safety hazard on Jan. 1, 2000, and Jordan Barab, who recently moved from acting OSHA chief to deputy OSHA director, would not launch his Confined Space blog until early 2003. High-quality safety and health blogs are much more numerous now.
The event for which the decade will forever be remembered occurred on Sept. 11, 2001. Besides killing almost 3,000 people, including more than 350 New York City emergency responders, the terrorist attacks on that day left a lasting, in some ways devastating impression.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security soon was formed to focus the nation’s defenses and preparedness. Thousands of responders at Ground Zero exhibited some loss of pulmonary function years after their exposure to dust at the site, according to a 2007 summary by the WTC Medical Monitoring & Treatment Program of the New York City Fire Department’s Bureau of Health Services. (The NYC fire department’s surveys indicated few responders had worn protective respirators during the first week of the response, but most were wearing them by Oct. 1, 2001.) Years of investigations and numerous reports by the National Institute of Standards and Technology analyzing the incident have not silenced conspiracy theorists who claim the fires started by two airliners could not have caused the World Trade Center towers to collapse.
Voters in the ohsonline.com online poll ranked the H1N1 pandemic as 2009's biggest safety and health story, with OSHA’s blockbuster $87 million fine in second place – both were more important, our voters said, than Dr. John Howard's return as NIOSH director, the federal and state crackdown on distracted driving, or the letter provided to ISEA by Acting OSHA Assistant Secretary Thomas Stohler stating the OSH Act and OSHA regulations should preempt tort claims against respirator manufacturers. For all of the attention paid last year to these stories and to tower crane safety, combustible dusts, crumbling infrastructure, and a jobless recovery, the biggest safety and health story of the full 2000-2009 decade was the impact of Sept. 11, 2001's terrorism. One of the falling towers destroyed OSHA's Manhattan Area Office, which was located on the top floor of the World Trade Center's Building 6, and OSHA personnel spent weeks on site assisting rescue and recovery workers.
Americans and the rest of the world became familiar with H1N1 flu in spring 2009. By summer, the World Health Organization declared it the first pandemic of the 21st Century. For the safety and health industry, the many stories related to the pandemic -- campaigns to vaccinate health workers and the general public against the disease, a dwindling stockpile of Tamiflu, and a shortage of N95 respirators to prevent the spread of the virus -- made national headlines in a year when a "not since the Great Depression" recession spiked unemployment past 10 percent. Companies halted 401(k) matches and slashed salaries; foreclosures soared.
By December, WHO reported more than 207 countries and overseas territories or communities had reported laboratory-confirmed cases of H1N1 influenza and recorded at least 8,768 deaths.
Aside from 9/11 and H1N1, arguably the biggest safety stories of 2000-2009 occurred at each end of the decade:
- On Nov. 14, 2000, OSHA issued a standard requiring employers to address ergonomics hazards, only to see Congress vote March 7-8, 2001, to repeal it. President George W. Bush's signature on March 20, 2001, completed the demise of the standard, which remains the only OSHA standard to be repealed in this way.
- OSHA enforcement reached a new plateau on Oct. 29, 2009, with $87,430,000 in penalties issued to BP Products North America Inc. -- one more chapter in the agency's oversight following the March 2005 explosion at the Texas City, Texas, refinery, in which 15 people died.
What else happened during the decade? Plenty.
Jan. 17, 2001: OSHA issued a steel erection standard, the first safety standard in its nearly 30-year history to be developed through a negotiated rulemaking process. Completing the standard took seven years.
Jan. 29, 2001: Elaine Chao became secretary of Labor, a job she kept until Jan. 20, 2009, throughout the presidency of George W. Bush. She held the post longer than all but a handful of the secretaries in the history of the department, whose first secretary, William B. Wilson, began his eight-year tenure March 6, 1913.
Sept. 11, 2001: Terrorists hijacked four commercial jetliners and crashed two into the World Trade Center towers in New York City and a third into the Pentagon, killing 2,976 people. These included 341 NYC Fire Department firefighters and 23 NYC Police Department officers.
Sept. 23, 2001: Thirteen coal miners died in two explosions at the Jim Walters Resources #5 Mine near Brookwood, Ala., with 12 of them killed by the second explosion while trying to rescue a miner who had been incapacitated by the first blast.
July 24, 2002: Water pouring in from an adjoining mine trapped nine coal miners inside the Quecreek #1 Mine in Somerset County, Pa. Three days later, all were safely rescued.
Feb. 20, 2003: One hundred people died in a fire at The Station, a nightclub in West Warwick, R.I., after pyrotechnics set off during a performance ignited foam decorations around the stage.
Sept. 22, 2005: OSHA announced a settlement in which BP Products North America Inc. agreed to pay $21,361,500 in connection with the Texas City explosion. The amount included $20,720,000 in penalties for what OSHA had classified as egregious willful violations.
Jan. 2, 2006: Twelve miners died in a methane explosion in the Sago Mine near Buckhannon, W.Va. Another miner, Randal McCloy Jr., survived. On June 15, 2006, President Bush signed a law requiring better preparation for underground coal mine emergency evacuations and rescues.
Aug. 24, 2006: OSHA issued a final Assigned Protection Factors rule that completed its 1998 revision of the Respiratory Protection Standard, 29 CFR 1910.134.
June 18, 2007: Nine Charleston (S.C.) Fire Department firefighters died while battling a blaze inside the Super Sofa Store. Investigators identified numerous management, equipment, and procedural failings by the department; the city soon appointed a new chief and made major changes in departmental training, staffing, and equipment and in its building inspections.
Aug. 1, 2007: A multi-span I-35W bridge in Minneapolis collapsed at rush hour, killing 13 people and injuring 145. The National Transportation Safety Board concluded a design flaw in the bridge caused the collapse. The following year, the Federal Highway Administration awarded a contract worth up to $25.5 million to the Rutgers University Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation to carry out the initial research for the Long-Term Bridge Performance program, which will collect and analyze data from selected bridges nationwide during a 20-year period.
Oct. 4, 2007: U.S. District Judge Terrence Kern issued a permanent injunction blocking enforcement of an Oklahoma law that would have made employers in the state criminally liable for prohibiting employees from storing guns in their locked vehicles on company property. On Feb. 18, 2009, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Kern, ruling that guns in the workplace are not a "recognized hazard" and so the state law is not preempted by the general duty clause of the OSH Act.
Feb. 7, 2008: An explosion and fire destroyed much of Imperial Sugar's Port Wentworth, Ga., sugar mill, causing the deaths of 13 workers. OSHA later fined the company $8,777,500, then the third-largest fine in OSHA's history, and some members of Congress began urging the agency to issue a combustible dust regulation.
March 15, 2008: A tower crane collapsed onto an adjacent building in midtown Manhattan, killing seven people. The city stepped up crane inspections, and OSHA fined three contractors a total of $313,500. Several states' legislatures enacted new crane inspection/registration and crane operator certification laws because of this and other high-profile crane incidents.
Sept. 21, 2008: Voting members of the International Code Council voted 1,282 to 470 in approving a proposal for the 2009 International Residential Code to require fire sprinklers in all new one- and two-family homes and townhouses. On Dec. 11, 2008, the ICC board of directors unanimously denied an appeal by the National Association of Home Builders claiming there were procedural errors in the September vote.
Now, to 2009
In many ways, 2009 was an exceptional year. As noted above, the recession and the impending pandemic dominated the headlines, causing the decade to end on a dubious note and leaving many of us reeling. The following were the other noteworthy safety stories during the year.
Jan. 9, 2009: OSHA gave respirator manufacturers such as MSA, Moldex-Metric, North, and Sperian Protection a potentially important assist with hundreds of thousands of asbestos and silica state court cases against them. Responding to an ISEA request, then-Acting OSHA Assistant Secretary Thomas Stohler signed a letter of interpretation stating the OSH Act and OSHA regulations should preempt such tort law claims when the respirators in question are NIOSH-certified. "To allow juries to enforce their own views of respirator design specifications and labeling for which NIOSH, as an expert agency, has already created standards and requirements, would directly conflict with OSHA's mandate that employers only use respirators designed and manufactured in accordance with NIOSH requirements," Stohler wrote.
May 26, 2009: OSHA cited Wal-Mart Stores Inc. for the recognized hazard of being crushed by a crowd of shoppers. This followed an employee's death on Nov. 28, 2008 – the "Black Friday" following Thanksgiving – and 11 other injuries in the same incident at a store in Valley Stream, N.Y. The citation carried a proposed fine of $7,000, the maximum penalty allowed under law for a serious violation. OSHA said the store should have given its employees training and tools to safely manage the crowd. Wal-Mart was spared criminal charges by agreeing in a settlement to set up a $400,000 victims' compensation fund and improve crowd control at its New York stores.
Aug. 19, 2009: Responding to a sobering FBI report that DUI arrests of women surged 28.8 percent from 1998 to 2007, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood kicked off a nationwide anti-drunk driving enforcement campaign. He released a study by NHTSA indicating more women were driving under the influence of alcohol.
Aug. 25, 2009: The safety industry lost its congressional champion when U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy succumbed to his battle with brain cancer, dying at his home in Hyannis Port, Mass. Kennedy was chairman of the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee at the time and had served in the Senate since 1963. The list of his legislative accomplishments included his introduction of the Americans with Disabilities Act, along with Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa; giving the FDA authority to regulate tobacco products; and involvement in a long list of safety issues such as airline deregulation, labeling of food allergens, mental health parity, funding for job training, medical error reporting, and support of the MINER Act.
Aug. 5, 2009: OSHA posted a letter of interpretation saying high-visibility warning garments are required safety attire for highway and road construction workers. The agency had said as much in 2004, but the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission subsequently ruled high-vis garments are required only where the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA)'s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) mandates their use. On Dec. 16, 2009, FHWA adopted the new MUTCD, which says all highway and road construction workers must wear high-vis apparel.
Sept. 3, 2009: John Howard, M.D., MPH, J.D., LL.M, was reappointed as NIOSH director after being not reappointed by CDC's director a little more than a year earlier, even though many safety and health organizations vocally supported reappointment. A former head of Cal/OSHA, Howard is board certified in internal medicine, legal medicine, and occupational medicine and is credited with focusing the institute on nanotechnology and emerging hazards. He also is HHS's coordinator of World Trade Center Programs.
Oct. 1, 2009: At the conclusion of a Distracted Driving Summit in Washington, D.C., the Department of Transportation announced a crackdown on texting while driving, showcasing a new executive order signed the previous evening by President Obama. The order tells federal employees not to text while operating a government vehicle or a private vehicle on government business and asks federal contractors to set similar policies. DOT Secretary LaHood said the summit was "probably the most important meeting in the history of the Department of Transportation."
Oct. 30, 2009: OSHA announced it had issued the largest fine in its history, $87,430,000, to BP Products North America Inc. for the company's alleged failure to correct potential hazards at its Texas City refinery. BP contested the case.
Dec. 3, 2009: Five months after being nominated, David Michaels, Ph.D., MPH, an epidemiologist who formerly chaired the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., was confirmed by the Senate to lead OSHA as assistant secretary of Labor. Jordan Barab, who had been acting assistant secretary most of the year, remained with the agency as deputy director.
Health issues that took center stage during the 21st Century's first decade were MRSA and health care-acquired infections, rising prevalence of black lung among underground coal miners, bills in Congress to ban all uses of asbestos in the United States, obesity and the problem of millions of Americans lacking health insurance, obstructive sleep apnea among truck drivers, and fatigue affecting transportation workers. As recently as November 2009, the National Transportation Safety Board determined that the driver's falling asleep at the wheel caused a January 2008 bus crash near Victoria, Texas, in which a passenger died and 17 passengers sustained major injuries. Since 1972, NTSB has issued more than 100 recommendations regarding fatigue in all transportation modes.
Earlier in 2009, Rep. Lynn Woolsey, chair of the U.S. House Education and Labor Committee's Subcommittee on Workforce Protections, introduced an OSHA reform bill, H.R. 2067. Known as the Protecting America's Workers Act, the bill proposes increasing penalties for willful violations of OSHA regulations and criminal penalties for employers found to have committed willful violations that lead to a worker's death. The bill also would strengthen protections for whistleblowers and expand OSHA's jurisdiction to cover some workers not currently under the protection of its standards. The companion bill, S. 1580, was one of the last bills sponsored by Sen. Kennedy before his death. As 2010 dawned, neither bill had budged.