A Year of Disasters, Delays, and Debate

It's easy to identify the biggest safety stories of 2017—they involve the year's repeated disasters.

It's easy to identify the biggest safety stories of 2017—they involve the year's repeated disasters. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria were devastating, especially in south Texas and Puerto Rico; a June fire at a London residential high-rise building killed at least 80 people; and California wildfires in the fall killed 42 people and burned more than 8,000 structures.

Beyond these, however, there were many other big events during the year:

Nov. 13: Drug testing panel expands
The U.S. Department of Transportation publishes a final rule to expand its drug testing panel to include hydrocodone, hydromorphone, oxymorphone, and oxycodone, a move the agency describes as "a direct effort to enhance safety, prevent opioid abuse and combat the nation’s growing opioid epidemic."

The rule makes a significant change in the DOT testing scheme that has been in place since it was created in 1988: DOT is removing the requirements for blind specimen testing in order to relieve employers and others of the cost and burden of doing this.

The rule says DOT will allow oral fluid drug testing and/or hair testing if either is added to the HHS Mandatory Guidelines, and it means DOT-regulated employers must test for the four opioids starting on Jan. 1, 2018.

"The opioid crisis is a threat to public safety when it involves safety-sensitive employees involved in the operation of any kind of vehicle or transport," says Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. "The ability to test for a broader range of opioids will advance transportation safety significantly and provide another deterrence to opioid abuse, which will better protect the public and ultimately save lives."

Nov. 2: Fire extinguisher recall
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and Kidde announce the recall of about 40 million Kidde fire extinguishers due to reports they may not function properly in an emergency. The recall applies to 134 models of Kidde fire extinguishers manufactured between January 1, 1973, and August 15, 2017, including models that had been previously recalled in March 2009 and February 2015; the recall involved both plastic handle and push-button Pindicator fire extinguishers.

There had been approximately 391 reports of failed or limited activation or nozzle detachment, including a 2014 death in which emergency responders could not get the recalled Kidde fire extinguishers to work in a car fire following a crash, according to the agency.

Oct. 26: Opioids public health emergency
President Donald J. Trump declares a public health emergency and outlines several actions his administration is taking and will take to address the opioids crisis, including new requirements from the Food and Drug Administration on the manufacturers of prescription opioids to help reverse over-prescribing. The White House's description of the actions notes that drug overdoses are now the leading cause of injury death in the United States, outnumbering both traffic crashes and gun-related deaths, and the estimated 64,000 drug overdose deaths in 2016 represent a rate of 175 deaths per day and exceed the number of Americans killed during the Vietnam War.

His declaration of a Nationwide Public Health Emergency allows for expanded access to telemedicine services, including services involving remote prescribing of medicine commonly used for substance abuse or mental health treatment, and allows HHS to more quickly make temporary appointments of specialists with the tools and talent needed to respond effectively to the emergency and the Department of Labor to issue dislocated worker grants to help workers who have been displaced from the workforce because of the opioid crisis, subject to available funding. Trump says he is awaiting the final report from the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, which the president established in March 2017.

Oct. 21: Wildfire cleanup in California
California Gov. Jerry Brown issues an executive order allowing EPA officials to help with the initial removal of hazardous waste that poses an imminent threat to public health and safety following major wildfires this month in the state. The order allows qualified professionals at the federal agency to assist state and local officials in immediately removing visible hazardous debris such as batteries, flammable liquids, asbestos siding, paint, and pipe insulation from burned homes.

Initial removal of these hazards will help to protect public health and the environment, and it lets residents and cleanup crews more safely enter properties and continue long-term recovery efforts. Brown earlier declared a state of emergency for the counties of Solano, Napa, Sonoma, Yuba, Butte, Lake, Mendocino, Nevada, and Orange because of the fires and also issued an executive order to cut red tape and help streamline recovery efforts.

The wildfires destroyed more than 6,000 homes and other structures, "creating extraordinary amounts of hazardous debris," his order says. It says local health officers of Butte, Lake, Mendocino, Napa, Nevada, Sonoma, and Yuba Counties have proclaimed local health emergencies as a result of the debris, and the debris "poses an imminent threat to public health and safety" because it is "filled with dangerous toxins including heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead, and lethal asbestos and must be removed cautiously and expeditiously."

Oct. 17: Balloon operators
The National Transportation Safety Board faults a "pattern of poor decision-making" by the operator of a balloon that crashed on July 30, 2016, in Lockhart, Texas, killing him and 15 passengers, after the balloon struck power lines. But the NTSB also faults FAA's oversight of commercial balloon operators, making two recommendations to the agency that ask it to remove the medical certificate exemption for commercial balloon operators and to find ways to better provide oversight of balloon operators.

"Today's recommendations, if acted on, will help to bring the safety standards closer to those that apply to powered flight," NTSB Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt says. "Balloon pilots, their passengers, and their passengers' loved ones, deserve no less."

The board concludes the medical certification exemption for commercial balloon operators contributed to the balloon crash. Also contributing to the accident were the pilot's impairing medical conditions and medications that likely affected his decision-making, the board found, saying its investigators determined that depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and the combined effects of multiple central nervous system-impairing drugs probably affected the pilot's ability to make safe decisions.

Sept. 26: Dropped objects standard
ISEA members involved in the development of a new standard, ANSI/ISEA 121, Standard for Dropped Objects Prevention Solutions, give an update on their efforts to a packed session at the 2017 National Safety Congress & Expo in Indianapolis. The principal speakers were Virginia Battles, global vice president of sales for Ty-Flot, and Nate Bohmbach, associate product director for Ergodyne. hall. They explain that four categories of products will be referenced in the standard: anchor points, attachment points, tool tethers, and anti-drop storage, such as self-closing bags.

Battles says there were 247 deaths in 2015 attributed to impacts from dropped objects and that Liberty Mutual reported "struck by" incidents were up 8.6 percent that year and Liberty Mutual spent $5.3 billion on workers' comp claims due to "struck by" incidents from 2013 to 2014.

Sept. 20: Bauxite shipping warning
The International Maritime Organization issues a new warning that bauxite may become unstable when carried in bulk on a ship, potentially causing the vessel to capsize. IMO's announcement says research presented to it found that certain forms of bauxite with a large proportion of smaller particles could be subject to a newly identified phenomenon of "dynamic separation" when there is excess moisture in the cargo. The warning circular takes effect immediately, ahead of the scheduled 2019 adoption of new test methods and relevant schedules for bauxite cargoes during the routine scheduled updating of the International Maritime Solid Bulk Cargoes (IMSBC) Code—the industry rulebook on how to deal with bulk cargoes.

The CCC.1 circular updates a previous circular on carriage of bauxite and asks governments to note that some bauxite cargoes (specifically those with a larger proportion of smaller particles) present a risk caused by moisture and should be treated as Group A cargoes. Excess moisture in such cargoes can lead to a free surface slurry that can cause wobbling of the ship—atypical motion that can produce cargo instability.

According to IMO, around 100 million tonnes of bauxite, one of the world's major sources of aluminum, are moved annually by sea. In 2015, the 10-year-old Bahamas flag Supramax bulk carrier Bulk Jupiter sank with the loss of 18 seafarers, a sinking referenced in the circular.

Sept. 12: Tesla crash
NTSB determines that a truck driver's failure to yield the right of way and a Tesla automobile driver's inattention due to overreliance on vehicle automation were the probable cause of a fatal May 7, 2016, crash near Williston, Fla. The safety board also determines the operational design of the Tesla's vehicle automation permitted the car driver's overreliance on the automation, noting its design allowed prolonged disengagement from the driving task and enabled the driver to use it in ways inconsistent with manufacturer guidance and warnings.

The board issues seven new safety recommendations and reiterates two previously issued safety recommendations.

"While automation in highway transportation has the potential to save tens of thousands of lives, until that potential is fully realized, people still need to safely drive their vehicles," says Sumwalt. "Smart people around the world are hard at work to automate driving, but systems available to consumers today, like Tesla's 'Autopilot' system, are designed to assist drivers with specific tasks in limited environments. These systems require the driver to pay attention all the time and to be able to take over immediately when something goes wrong. System safeguards that should have prevented the Tesla's driver from using the car's automation system on certain roadways were lacking, and the combined effects of human error and the lack of sufficient system safeguards resulted in a fatal collision that should not have happened," he says.

July 27: Sleep deprivation
A new National Safety Council report indicates almost half of Americans do not get enough sleep to safely perform the duties assigned to them by their employer. It is based on a survey that found 43 percent of Americans say they do not get enough sleep to mitigate critical risks that can jeopardize safety at work and on the roads, including the ability to think clearly, make informed decisions, and be productive.

Eighty-one percent of the probability-based survey respondents have jobs that are at high risk for fatigue—positions that require sustained attention or are physically or cognitively demanding, such as driving a vehicle or working at a construction site, NSC reports.

One of the most startling statistics found by the survey is that 97 percent of Americans say they have at least one of the leading nine risks factors for fatigue, which include working at night or early in the morning, working long shifts without regular work breaks, working more than 50 hours each week, and enduring long commutes. Seventy-six percent of workers say they feel tired at work, 53 percent feel less productive, and 44 percent have trouble focusing.

"These findings are a literal wake-up call: When we're tired, we can put ourselves and others at risk," says Deborah A.P. Hersman, president and CEO of the National Safety Council. "We hope Americans recognize that impairment stems not just from alcohol and drugs, but lack of restorative rest—fitness for duty starts with getting a good night's sleep."

July 23: Washington state introduces E-DUI tickets
Beginning July 23, it is against the law in Washington state for drivers to use hand-held electronics while they are driving. That includes all electronic devices—cell phones, tablets, laptops, and video games. Tickets for driving while using hand-held electronics will go on their record and be reported to their insurance company, the state warns, and an E-DUI ticket will cost $136 for the first violation and $234 for the second (within five years).

In line with the change, the Washington state Traffic Safety Commission has reported that fatalities from distracted driving increased 32 percent from 2014 to 2015 in Washington state and that one-quarter of all crashes involved a cell phone being used just prior to the crash; the commission's most recent collision report, from 2014, shows that distracted drivers crash every 12 minutes and distraction was a factor in 40 percent of all collisions and in 123 fatal collisions.

The law says hand-held cell phones may not be used even when stopped in traffic or at a traffic light. It bars:

  • Typing messages or accessing information
  • Watching videos or using cameras

You can use your devices if you are:

  • Hands-free (such as using Bluetooth) and can start use by a single touch or swipe without holding the phone
  • Parked or out of the flow of traffic
  • Starting your GPS or music before you drive
  • Contacting emergency services

Transit and emergency vehicle drivers are exempt, while drivers of commercial vehicles must follow federal laws. Two-way radio, citizens band radio, or amateur radio equipment are not included in the law.

The state points out that drivers also can get a $99 ticket for other types of distractions, such as grooming, smoking, eating, or reading, if the activity interferes with safe driving and you are pulled over for another traffic offense.

July 13: 1,800 comments on injury reporting rule delay
More than 1,800 comments have been submitted by this day's deadline about OSHA's plan to delay the compliance deadline in its rule to improve the tracking and reporting of workplace injuries and illnesses, a rule published May 12, 2016, from July 1, 2017, when certain employers were to be required to submit the information from their completed 2016 Form 300A to OSHA electronically, to Dec. 1, 2017.

OSHA proposed the delay to give the Trump administration an opportunity to review the new electronic reporting requirements before their implementation and allow affected entities time to familiarize themselves with the electronic reporting system. OSHA also said it will issue a separate proposal to reconsider, revise, or remove other provisions of the prior final rule.

The comments are all over the map: Many commenters want no delay of the compliance deadline, many want the delay to be implemented, and some—notably, from construction companies that submitted identical comments—want the original rule withdrawn.

June 28: No state earns an 'A' for preventable death efforts
A new report from the National Safety Council says that no state goes far enough to protect its residents from leading causes of preventable deaths and injuries on the road, in homes, and at work. With preventable deaths at an all-time high, none of the 50 states, as well as Washington D.C., earned an "A" for overall safety.

Seven states received a "B" rating, while 11 states received an "F." The report marks the end of National Safety Month, which draws attention to eliminating preventable deaths.

"The cultural novocaine has to wear off," says Hersman. "Safety is no accident. We lose more than 140,000 people because of events we know how to prevent. This report provides states with a blueprint for saving lives, and we hope lawmakers, civic leaders, public health professionals, and safety advocates use it to make their communities measurably safer."

June 19: AHA cardiac emergencies campaign
The American Heart Association launches a new campaign that calls for training U.S. workers to respond appropriately to workplace cardiac emergencies and also for public access to AEDs, automated external defibrillators. The association releases results from new surveys that indicate most American workers aren't prepared to handle these emergencies because they lack training in CPR and first aid.

Sharing the details of the research findings with attendees of the American Society of Safety Engineers' Safety 2017 conference and expo, American Heart Association officials indicate they'll be publicizing the details widely during the second half of 2017. More employee training on CPR and use of AEDs is clearly needed, the surveys show, and they also point out the need for more refresher training.

There are about 10,000 cardiac arrests annually in the nation's workplaces, according to AHA.

The surveys showed most workers do not have access to CPR and first aid training and half could not locate an AED at work. More than 3,000 workers in various fields were surveyed between February and April 2017, and 2,000 employees in corporate offices, hospitality, education, and industry/labor and more than 1,000 safety managers in industries regulated by OSHA also were surveyed.

March 16: President proposes to eliminate Chemical Safety Board
Five months after the U.S. Chemical Safety Board released its 2017-2021 Strategic Plan, President Donald J. Trump's first budget proposal proposes to eliminate that agency. The board is an independent agency that investigates serious chemical incidents, such as the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the West, Texas explosion of ammonium nitrate at a fertilizer storage facility, and the Freedom Industries leak, a leak on Jan. 9, 2014, of an estimated 10,000 gallons of crude Methylcyclohexanemethanol into the Elk River near Charleston, W.Va., contaminating the drinking water supply for about 300,000 residents of that area.

The board responds over many months by stressing the importance of its investigations and solid gains in employee satisfaction, according to the 2017 OPM Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey.

Feb. 27: WHO lists 'priority pathogens'
The World Health Organization publishes its first-ever list of antibiotic-resistant "priority pathogens," as the UN agency terms them—12 families of bacteria that pose the greatest threat to human health. The list was created as a way to guide and promote research and development of new antibiotics as part of WHO’s efforts to address growing global resistance to antimicrobial medicines, and it highlights the threat of gram-negative bacteria that are resistant to multiple antibiotics.

"This list is a new tool to ensure R&D responds to urgent public health needs," says Dr. Marie-Paule Kieny, WHO’s assistant director-general for Health Systems and Innovation. "Antibiotic resistance is growing, and we are fast running out of treatment options. If we leave it to market forces alone, the new antibiotics we most urgently need are not going to be developed in time."

The WHO list is divided into critical, high, and medium priority needs. The most critical group includes multidrug-resistant bacteria that pose a particular threat in hospitals, nursing homes, and among patients whose care requires devices such as ventilators and blood catheters. They include Acinetobacter, Pseudomonas, and various Enterobacteriaceae (including Klebsiella, E. coli, Serratia, and Proteus). These can cause severe and often deadly infections, such as bloodstream infections and pneumonia, and have become resistant to a large number of antibiotics, including carbapenems and third-generation cephalosporins, according to WHO’s announcement.

Feb. 9: Hearing loss report
A new survey from CDC finds that one in four U.S. adults who say their hearing is good or excellent actually have hearing damage, and that much of this damage results from loud sounds that occur every day at home, such as using a leaf blower or attending concerts. The study found that 20 percent of people who reported no job-related noise exposure had hearing damage in a pattern caused by noise. This damage appeared as early in a person's life as the age of 20.

"Forty million Americans show some hearing damage from loud noise, with nearly 21 million reporting no exposure to loud noise at work," says CDC Acting Director Dr. Anne Schuchat. "This can be distressing for people affected and their loved ones. We hope this report will help raise awareness of this problem and help clinicians reduce their patients’ risk for early hearing loss."

Jan. 19: Blankenship conviction upheld
A federal appeals court upholds the Dec. 3, 2015, conviction of Don Blankenship of conspiring to willfully violate federal mine health and safety standards, following the methane explosion that killed 29 miners inside the Upper Big Branch South mine near Whitesville, W.Va., on April 5, 2010. Blankenship is the former CEO of Massey Energy, a subsidiary of which owned the mine.

A 3-0 decision by a panel of judges from the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denies Blankenship’s appeal. Chief Judge Roger L. Gregory writes the decision, joined by Judge James A. Wynn, Jr. and Senior Judge Andre M. Davis, which holds that "reckless disregard" can constitute criminal "willfulness."

On Oct. 10, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court refuses to consider Blankenship's appeal.

Jan 9: Health workers' exposure to violence at work
OSHA holds a public meeting to discuss the need for a standard intended to increase health workers' protection against violence on the job. OSHA published a Request for Information on Dec. 7, 2016.

The AFL-CIO was one of the labor organizations that petitioned Labor Secretary Tom Perez in July 2016 seeking an OSHA standard. The Teamsters, Steelworkers, and SEIU all joined in the petition, which alleged that the health care industry violence problem already recognized by OSHA "has grown progressively worse."

OSHA's RFI asks for information on effective strategies for reducing incidents of violence in health care and social assistance settings, and the agency sets a deadline for comments and materials of April 6, 2017.

This article originally appeared in the January 2018 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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