Monitoring Required to Avoid Dangerous Dust Inhalation in the Workplace

December 11, 2017

Approximately 14.8 million adults in the U.S. have been diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), with an estimated 12 million people likely to have the condition, but not yet diagnosed.1 Many of these cases could be linked to occupational exposure from dangerous airborne dusts, fumes, and other substances.

Implementing workplace monitoring solutions could be the key to reducing these statistics. The process provides real-time data about dust levels, enabling employers to identify general areas and specific activities that increase exposure, implementing processes to mitigate risks.

OSHA recognized the importance for employers to protect workers from hazardous substances by establishing Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs). This applies to substances such as metal, coal, silica dust, and toxic fumes with different maximum exposure limits, indicating when exposure becomes potentially hazardous to health and employers must react.2

Highlighting the importance of maintaining healthy PELs, OSHA adopted a new regulation on September 23, 2017 that reduces workers’ exposure to crystalline silica. The regulation stipulates that personal exposure should be limited to 50 micrograms of respirable crystalline silica per cubic meter of air (µg/cu m), over an eight-hour period.

This places more stringent requirements on employers to implement better methods to reduce exposure. These methods include monitoring programs and maintaining records of exposure, as well as offering medical examinations and training individuals about silica-related hazards and how to limit exposure. OSHA estimates this new rule could save up to 700 lives per year.

To comply with the standard, the following schedule must be adhered to:

  • If initial results indicate exposures are below the action level (25 µg/cu m), no additional monitoring is necessary.
  • If the monitoring results indicate exposures are above the action level, but below the PEL, additional monitoring would be required within six months.
  • If the monitoring indicates exposures above the PEL, additional monitoring must be repeated within three months.
  • If subsequent monitoring (not the initial monitoring) indicates exposures are below the action level, the employer must repeat the monitoring until two consecutive measurements (taken seven or more days apart) are below the action level. At that point, the employer can discontinue monitoring.

 

Monitoring solutions are effective in measuring exposure limits, ensuring appropriate action is taken if levels are exceeded.

Before implementing any dust monitoring solution, the first action needed is a proper risk assessment, which will answer some key questions:

  • Who is exposed and to what?
  • How long are they exposed for?
  • How much are they exposed to?

 

Monitoring must be done in a way that it does not impact the comfort or productivity of a worker. Real-time dust monitoring solutions generally can be used for general spot checks, walk-through surveys, and individual monitoring, as well as detecting the total level of dust in the air. These instruments highlight exactly when and where excessive dust levels are occurring to support real-time rapid decision-making. Monitoring is a procedure that instantly yields results, equipping employers and employees alike with greater knowledge, which leads to positive workplace health programs. For crystalline silica, personal monitoring is essential, and employers must rely on personal dust sampling pumps.

Integrating monitoring pumps should become an established part of the health and safety process for companies. As a result, companies save valuable time while protecting employees which enhances business efficiency. The number of American’s suffering from respiratory conditions as the result of workplace exposure is a serious issue. To ensure such cases are reduced, monitoring is crucial.

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Advisory for Worker Safety in California Wildfire Regions

Cal/OSHA advised employers that special precautions must be taken to protect workers from hazards from wildfire smoke. Smoke from wildfires contains chemicals, gases and fine particles that can harm health. The greatest hazard comes from breathing fine particles, which can reduce lung function, worsen asthma and other existing heart and lung conditions, and cause coughing, wheezing and difficulty breathing.

Cal/OSHA has posted materials that provide guidance for employers and workers on working safely in conditions with heavy smoke caused by the wildfires. Employers with operations exposed to wildfire smoke must consider taking appropriate measures as part of their Injury and Illness Prevention Program under Title 8 section 3203 of the California Code of Regulations and as required under section 5141 (Control of Harmful Exposure to Employees). 

Those measures include:

  • Engineering controls whenever feasible (for example, using a filtered ventilation system in indoor work areas)
  • Administrative controls if practicable (for example, limiting the time that employees work outdoors)
  • Providing workers with respiratory protective equipment, such as disposable filtering facepieces (dust masks)
  • To filter out fine particles, respirators must be labeled N-95, N-99, N-100 R-95, P-95, P-99, or P-100, and must be labeled approved by the NIOSH
  • Approved respiratory protective equipment is necessary for employees working in outdoor locations designated by local air quality management districts as “Very Unhealthy,” “Unhealthy” or “Hazardous”
  • It takes more effort to breathe through a respirator, and it can increase the risk of heat stress
  • Frequent breaks are advised

 

Workers feeling dizzy, faint or nauseous are advised to go to a clean area, remove the respirator and seek medical attention. Respirators should be discarded if they become difficult to breathe through or if the inside becomes dirty.

Employers should call 800-963-9424 for assistance from Cal/OSHA Consultation Services. Employees with work-related questions or complaints may contact DIR’s Call Center in English or Spanish at 844-LABOR-DIR (844-522-6734). The California Workers’ Information line at 866-924-9757 provides recorded information in English and Spanish on a variety of work-related topics. Complaints can also be filed confidentially with Cal/OSHA district offices.

Members of the press may contact Erika Monterroza or Peter Melton at (510) 286-1161,  and are encouraged to subscribe to get email alerts on DIR’s press releases or other departmental updates.

DOT to Repeal Electronically Controlled Pneumatic Brake Mandate

In accordance with the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act (Public Law 114-94), the DOT announced the final updated Regulatory Impact Analysis (RIA) in regard to Electronically Controlled Pneumatic (ECP) brakes on certain trains.  After careful review in accordance with the Congressional mandate contained in the FAST Act, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) will rescind the ECP mandate.

This determination was made with congressionally-mandated input from the National Academy of Sciences’ Transportation Research Board, U.S. General Accountability Office (GAO) and studies by the FRA, which found that the cost-benefit analyses are not sufficient justification for mandating ECP brakes.

The National Academy of Sciences determined it was unable to make a conclusive statement regarding the emergency performance of ECP brakes relative to other braking systems.  In addition, the updated RIA incorporated recommendations from audits conducted by the U.S. General Accountability Office and updated costs and benefits of the ECP brake provision based on current economic conditions.  This review demonstrated that the costs of this mandate would exceed three-fold the benefits it would produce.

OSHA Updated Factsheet: Roof Tarping (Blue Roof) Safety

Reinforced plastic tarps, commonly called Blue Roofs, provide temporary protection for the roofs of homes and other buildings damaged during severe weather such as a hurricane or tornado. When employees access roofs to install these tarps, they are at risk of falls, electrocutions, and other hazards. A recently updated OSHA factsheet provides recommendations to help keep workers safe.

Improvements Needed to Protect Workers at Meat and Poultry Plants

OSHA increased its annual inspections of the meat and poultry industry from 177 in 2005 to 244 in 2016. OSHA officials told GAO that this increase was related to several new enforcement programs focusing on the poultry industry, as well as new reporting requirements that prompt additional inspections. However, OSHA faces challenges identifying and addressing worker safety concerns because workers may be reluctant to contact OSHA for fear of employer retaliation, although employers are prohibited from doing so by federal law. If workers are afraid to share concerns, OSHA may not be able to identify or address conditions that endanger them. In particular, OSHA may not be aware of the scope of problems workers could face gaining timely access to bathrooms. When asked by GAO, workers in five selected states cited bathroom access as a concern and said they fear speaking up at work, where OSHA inspectors typically interview them. Taking additional steps to encourage workers to disclose sensitive concerns and gathering additional information to determine the scope of bathroom access issues could enable OSHA to better identify worker safety and health concerns.

OSHA's and the Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service's (FSIS) main vehicle for collaboration on worker safety is their 1994 memorandum of understanding (MOU), but efforts to implement and evaluate the MOU have been limited. The MOU outlines plans for collaboration, such as referrals of plant hazards to OSHA by FSIS inspectors, training of FSIS staff, and information sharing. OSHA and FSIS have taken some steps to implement the policies and procedures outlined in the MOU. However, GAO found issues with the MOU's implementation in these three areas, hampering achievement of the MOU's goals. For example, according to FSIS officials, FSIS inspectors may be reluctant to make referrals to OSHA about hazards in plants because they fear it could trigger an OSHA inspection of FSIS. Further, the agencies have not evaluated the implementation of the MOU. Evaluating the implementation of the MOU and making any needed changes would help ensure the goals of the MOU are met and further protect the safety and health of both plant workers and FSIS inspectors.

Gaps in federal efforts create challenges to protecting workers from certain chemical hazards. For example, depending on a chemical's intended use, it may not undergo a federal review of the risks it poses to worker safety and health before it is used in a plant. FSIS collects information on how to protect its inspectors from new chemicals, but it does not have a process to share this information with OSHA or plants, among others, so that plant workers can be similarly protected. By FSIS establishing a process to regularly share the worker safety information it collects, the federal government will be better positioned to use existing resources to support the safety and health of plant workers and FSIS inspectors. 

Why GAO Did This Study

Meat and poultry slaughter and processing is one of the most hazardous industries in the United States. GAO was asked to review federal efforts to help ensure meat and poultry worker safety and health.

This report:

  • Describes the efforts OSHA has made to help ensure worker safety and assesses any challenges to these efforts.
  • Examines how OSHA and FSIS have collaborated to ensure worker safety, and
  • Assesses factors that may affect OSHA and FSIS efforts to protect workers from chemical hazards.

 

GAO analyzed OSHA inspection data from 2005—when GAO last reported on this issue—through 2016. GAO also interviewed OSHA staff in headquarters and six field offices; officials at four other federal agencies; worker advocates; and industry representatives. GAO visited four plants and interviewed workers at six sites in five states selected based on factors such as meat or poultry production.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making seven recommendations, including that OSHA encourage workers to disclose sensitive concerns and gather bathroom access information; OSHA and FSIS strengthen their MOU; and FSIS share worker safety information. OSHA had concerns about two of these recommendations and did not address one. FSIS expressed concerns but described planned actions to address the recommendations. GAO believes the recommendations should be fully implemented.

For more information, contact Cindy Brown Barnes at 202-512-7215 or brownbarnesc@gao.gov.

Champagne Demolition LLC Guilty of Violating Whistleblower Rights

A jury and judge ordered Albany-based asbestos abatement and demolition company Champagne Demolition, LLC and its owner, Joseph A. Champagne, to pay $173,793.84 to a former employee who was fired in June 2010 after reporting improper asbestos removal practices at a school worksite in Gloversville, New York.

The judgment supports an OSHA lawsuit that found Champagne Demolition, LLC violated the employee’s whistleblower rights. The company must pay $103,000 in back wages, $20,000 in compensatory, and $50,000 in punitive damages.

On June 10, 2010, the employee informed company management of the improper practices. The employee was fired the next day and subjected to verbal threats and legal action. A complaint was filed with OSHA, which opened a whistleblower investigation and found merit to the allegations.

“We are pleased with the jury verdict and the judge’s ruling to hold this employer accountable for violating the employee’s rights,” said OSHA Regional Administrator Robert Kulick, in New York. “Every worker has the right to report potential safety and health hazards without fear of harassment, termination, or retaliation.”

“This jury verdict and the judge’s ruling on this case underscores the Labor Department’s commitment to ensuring that the law is followed and employees’ right to a healthy and safe workplace is maintained,” said Regional Solicitor of Labor Jeffrey S. Rogoff, in New York.

OSHA enforces the whistleblower provisions of the Occupational Safety and Health Act and 21 other statutes protecting employees who report violations of various airline, commercial motor carrier, consumer product, environmental, financial reform, food safety, health care reform, nuclear, pipeline, public transportation agency, maritime, and securities laws.

Attorneys Allison Bowles, Amy Tai, and Darren Cohen of the regional Office of the Solicitor in New York litigated the case. The whistleblower inspection was conducted by OSHA’s regional Office of Whistleblower Protection Programs in New York.

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