Report: OSHA Did Not Sufficiently Protect Workers from COVID-19

November 07, 2022
OSHA’s enforcement activities did not sufficiently protect workers from COVID-19 health hazards, the U.S. Department of Labor Office of Inspector General (OIG) has found following an audit of the agency’s pandemic response. In a report issued on Oct. 31, OIG states that OSHA’s lack of citations to enforce its standard for recording and reporting occupational injuries and illnesses during COVID-19 inspections as well as incomplete information on COVID-19 infection rates at work sites are two issues that led to its conclusion that “there is a heightened risk that workers suffered unnecessary exposure to the virus.” OIG’s audit also found that 20 percent of a sample of on-site and remote COVID-19 inspections conducted from February 2020 through January 2021 were closed by OSHA without the agency ensuring that employers had demonstrated the mitigation of alleged health hazards.
“These issues occurred because OSHA had not established controls to ensure citations were issued or to document the rationale, does not require employers to report all COVID-19 cases among workers, and does not have a tool to ensure it receives and reviews all requested documentation prior to closing inspections,” the OIG report states.
The report outlines five recommendations that OIG says would improve OSHA’s enforcement activities and help protect workers from pandemic health hazards. OIG recommends that OSHA provide additional training to compliance safety and health officers (CSHOs) to enforce its recording and reporting standard for fatalities; update its guidance or policies to include supervisory review of files prior to closing inspections to ensure that the files “contain adequate support for the reasons regarding citation issuance decisions”; and develop a plan regarding work site case data for future pandemics that involves collaboration with other agencies to improve OSHA’s response and enforcement actions. OIG’s report also recommends that OSHA require employers to notify all employees of all known positive cases of infectious diseases at work sites as part of its rulemaking on infectious diseases. The report’s final recommendation is for OSHA to develop and implement a tracking tool intended to ensure that the agency receives and reviews all items requested by CSHOs during inspections.
OSHA’s response to the report describes the agency’s disagreement with two of OIG’s recommendations, including the one about the infectious diseases rulemaking. OSHA explains that the planned scope of the rule is limited to the healthcare and social assistance sectors, stressing that a rule covering all employers would essentially “be a whole new rulemaking and significantly slow” the rulemaking process for infectious diseases, potentially leaving healthcare and social assistance workers at risk of pandemic-related hazards. The agency also disagrees with OIG’s tracking tool recommendation, clarifying that an alleged hazard does not mean that a hazard or violation exists.
“If OSHA does not issue a citation, then there is no requirement for an employer to provide documentation of hazard abatement to OSHA,” the agency explains. “[G]iven that the audit has not shown the lack of a tracking system has a material impact on inspection effectiveness, OSHA is not persuaded it should prioritize creating and mandating use of a uniform tracking tool for all investigatory documentation requests.”
To learn more, view the full report (PDF) on OIG’s website.
EPA Issues Final List of Contaminants for Potential Regulatory Consideration in Drinking Water, Significantly Increases PFAS Chemicals for Review
The EPA recently published the Final Fifth Drinking Water Contaminant Candidate List (CCL 5), which will serve as the basis for EPA’s regulatory considerations over the next five-year cycle under the Safe Drinking Water Act. This update includes a substantial expansion of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), an important first step towards identifying additional PFAS that may require regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
“Following public engagement and robust scientific review, the final contaminant candidate list is the latest milestone in our regulatory efforts to ensure safe, clean drinking water for all communities,” said EPA Assistant Administrator for Water Radhika Fox. “As EPA takes action to protect public health and the environment from PFAS, including proposing the first nationwide drinking water standards later this year, today’s final CCL 5 looks further forward to consider additional protective steps for these forever chemicals.”
A year ago, EPA published the PFAS Strategic Roadmap, outlining an Agency-wide approach to addressing PFAS in the environment. The recent announcement strengthens EPA’s commitment to protect public health from impacts of PFAS and support the Agency’s decision-making for potential future regulations of PFAS.
In addition to a group of PFAS, the Final CCL 5 includes 66 individually listed chemicals, two additional chemical groups (cyanotoxins and disinfection byproducts (DBPs)), and 12 microbes.
In developing the Final CCL 5, EPA requested public nominations, providing an opportunity for people to make recommendations to the Agency about specific contaminants of concern that may disproportionally affect their local community. EPA further enhanced the CCL process based on comments received on this CCL and previous CCLs, including by prioritizing data most relevant to drinking water exposure, improving considerations of sensitive populations including children, and considering the recommendations included in the Review of the EPA’s Draft Fifth Contaminant Candidate List (CCL 5) report from the Science Advisory Board. These improvements resulted in a Final CCL 5 that can better inform prioritization of contaminants for potential regulatory actions and/or research efforts.
NIOSH Announces 2023 Update of Its Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards
NIOSH plans to publish an updated version of its Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards in 2023, the agency announced in the November issue of its e-newsletter. The NIOSH Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards provides general industrial hygiene information for nearly 700 chemicals and is intended to inform workers, employers, and occupational health professionals about workplace chemicals and their hazards. According to NIOSH, the new edition will include expanded signs and symptoms of exposure, updated respirator recommendations, and added airborne concentration measurement methods. The agency also plans to include NIOSH skin notations, descriptions of how chemical protective clothing and decontamination recommendations were developed, and the most recent NIOSH Chemical Carcinogen Policy, which describes how the agency classifies chemicals as carcinogens, identifies control levels, and addresses analytical feasibility.
The NIOSH Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards was first published in 1978. It is currently available in print, online, as a PDF, and as a mobile app for iOS and Android devices.
Report Characterizes Electrical Injuries, Citations in Construction
Nearly half of all work-related electrocutions in 2019 occurred in the construction industry even though construction workers comprised only seven percent of all workers in the United States, according to a new publication from CPWR – The Center for Construction Research and Training (PDF). The publication characterizes fatal and nonfatal electrical injuries and related OSHA citations for the period 2011 through 2020.
The rate of fatal electrical injuries in construction dropped from 0.7 per 100,000 full-time workers in 2019 to 0.5 per 100,000 FTEs in 2020, the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. The 54 fatal electrical injuries in 2020 was the lowest number recorded in the ten-year period beginning in 2011 and a significant drop from the high of 87 fatalities recorded in 2018. But even though electrical fatalities in construction dropped in 2020, the overall number of fatalities in the industry was 4.2 percent higher than in 2019, according to a CPWR publication released earlier this year (PDF).
Within the construction industry, 71 percent of fatal electrocutions from 2011 through 2020 occurred in the specialty trade contractors subsector. Workers in this subsector include contractors who work as carpenters, laborers, electricians, supervisors or managers of construction workers, plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The number of nonfatal electrical injuries in construction rose slightly from 440 in 2019 to 450 in 2020. The highest number of nonfatal electrical injuries during 2011–2020 was 790 in 2015.
In contrast to the number of electrical injuries, which fluctuated from year to year, the number of OSHA citations fell steadily from 2011 through 2020. In 2011 OSHA issued approximately 4,900 electrical citations comprising 6.5 percent of all construction industry citations. Only 1,300 electrical citations—about 2.7 percent of all citations in construction—were issued in 2020. Electrical penalty totals also fell steadily from $4.5 million in 2011 to $1.9 million in 2019 and 2020.
CPWR is a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing occupational injuries, illnesses, and fatalities in the construction industry. Visit the CPWR website for research and training materials.
New Mexico Environmental Improvement Board Adopts New Regulation Implementing Greenhouse Gas Emission Standard for Coal-Fired Power Plants
The New Mexico Environmental Improvement Board (EIB) recently adopted regulations that implement a new air quality standard to strictly limit the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from coal-fired power plants in the state. The standard, which was adopted by the Legislature in the Energy Transition Act of 2019, applies to new and existing power plants and limits CO2 emissions from those facilities to no more than one thousand one hundred pounds per megawatt-hour on and after January 1, 2023.
As specified in the amendments made to the Air Quality Control Act by the Energy Transition Act, Part 101 applies to new and existing electric generating facilities with an original installed capacity exceeding three hundred megawatts and that uses coal as a fuel source. This emission standard is more stringent and protective than the current federal air standards EPA finalized in 2015 for new, reconstructed, and modified coal-fired power plants.
The rule was developed with robust and meaningful public involvement that went beyond the minimum requirement to hold a public hearing, ensuring the state shared information with and solicited input from stakeholders at critical junctures in the process. In addition to steps taken for this rulemaking, the Energy Transition Act provided other tools to support affected communities, including three new funds to provide transition assistance to tribal communities, displaced workers, and the broader affected community (100 miles from the affected plant) to promote economic development and job training.
Economic factors are driving New Mexico’s energy transition. Coal-fired electrical generation in New Mexico has declined over the past several years. The Four Corners Generating Station, located on the Navajo Nation, permanently shut down Units 1, 2, and 3 in 2014. Arizona Public Service announced it would be decommissioning the Four Corners Generating Station by the end of 2031. With the support of the Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM), the San Juan Generating Station retired Units 2 and 3 in 2017 and Units 1 and 4 in 2022. The Escalante Generation Station closed in 2020. The Energy Transition Act provided guard rails for how than transition will evolve in New Mexico.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, 50% of electricity generated in the United States came from coal in 2010. By 2021, coal-powered electricity generation dropped to 25% nationally. Cheaper, cleaner energy sources have made coal power less competitive over time. Rising public awareness of climate change, as well as state laws and regulations such as the Energy Transition Act, contributed to the reduced reliance on coal for electricity production. Together, these market forces are leading to increased use of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. Since the 2019 passage of the Energy Transition Act, nearly two gigawatts (2 GW) of renewable generation (1,849 megawatts of wind, 104 megawatts of solar, and 4 megawatts of battery storage) have come online in New Mexico.
New Mexico is now home to the largest onshore wind energy development in North America. The state is also harnessing the opportunities that hydrogen presents as a clean fuel in place of fossil fuels throughout the economy. This spring, Gov. Lujan Grisham signed Executive Order 2022-013, Establishing the Clean Hydrogen Development Initiative. New Mexico also partnered with Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming to create the Western Inter-State Hydrogen Hub coalition to establish a regional hydrogen hub in the mountain west.
MPCA Brings Cutting-Edge Technology to Minnesota to Remove PFAS from Water
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) recently announced the purchase of new, state-of-the art technology to remove and destroy bulk concentrations of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) from contaminated water in the environment. This fall, the state will deploy the technology in the East Metro as part of the ongoing work to address PFAS contamination affecting the drinking water for roughly 174,000 residents.
The process works in two parts. The first technology, surface activated foam fractionation (SAFF), injects outdoor air into contaminated water, turning PFAS into foam that can be separated from the water. The foam is then removed, PFAS levels are significantly reduced, and the water is returned to the environment — both cleaner and safer. The PFAS concentrate then goes to the DEFLUORO unit, a second technology where the carbon-fluorine bonds (the backbone of PFAS chemicals) are broken through electrochemical oxidation. Both technologies are mobile and work without adding any chemicals back into the surface or groundwater.
“This pilot project marks the beginning of a new era for PFAS clean-up in Minnesota,” said MPCA Commissioner Katrina Kessler. “This study will help us address PFAS contamination at the source and develop long-term solutions for cleaner water — ensuring safe drinking water for Minnesotans. We hope to eventually employ this technology around the state including in Greater Minnesota, where PFAS is a growing concern.”
With fewer than 20 systems in existence, the SAFF technology is in high demand across the globe for its innovative ability to separate PFAS from water safely and quickly. Minnesota is the first state government in the country to purchase and implement it. The SAFF unit will deploy at Tablyn Park in Lake Elmo for the first round of testing on groundwater and surface water. It will likely move to other testing locations over the next one to two years. The DEFLUORO unit will be staged at the former Washington County landfill location.
Australian-based OPEC Systems, Ltd. designed the SAFF technology. U.S.-based AECOM designed the DEFLUORO unit. The SAFF unit is in route to Minnesota from Australia and is scheduled to arrive next month.
State agencies are working with city and county representatives to ensure safe handling practices under applicable regulations. None of the water used in this temporary test is connected to the city’s drinking water, which remains safe and well within Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) drinking water guidelines for PFAS impacts.
“Lake Elmo has been ground zero for PFAS contamination for years,” said Lake Elmo City Council member Jeff Holtz. “The City of Lake Elmo is excited to partner with the MPCA on the pilot study. Tablyn Park offers a unique opportunity to test this PFAS destroying technology on both groundwater and surface water sources. We look forward to learning more about how it may improve our valuable natural resources.”
New information obtained during the pilot testing will help determine how and where to treat water in the East Metro.
Substantial PFAS Contamination Found in Pesticides in Colorado Are Threat to Food Chain
.jpg" width="" />New research has documented disturbingly high levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in widely used pesticides. These findings contradict previous statements by the EPA that PFAS are not used in registered pesticide products and has prompted a coalition of groups and an elected leader to urge that the state of Colorado act immediately to ban use of any pesticide containing PFAS.
Published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials Letters the study, the study, “Targeted Analysis and Total Oxidizable Precursor Assay of Several Pesticides for PFAS,” found –
  • PFOS (one of the two legacy PFAS that is no longer manufactured in the United States) in 6 out of 10 tested insecticides at incredibly high levels, ranging from 3,920,000 to 19,200,000 parts-per-trillion (ppt). By contrast, this June EPA updated its Health Advisory for PFOS to 0.02 ppt;
  • These PFAS are being taken up into the roots and shoots of plants, which means that they are entering our food supply through contaminated soils. Given that PFAS are “forever chemicals,” this contamination will last long after PFAS is removed from pesticides; and
  • A non-targeted PFAS analysis indicates that there are far more additional unknown PFAS in 7 out of 10 tested insecticides.
“If the intent was to spread PFAS contamination across the globe there would be few more effective methods than lacing pesticides with PFAS,” stated PEER Science Policy Director Kyla Bennett, a scientist and attorney formerly with EPA, noting that one of the pesticides containing PFAS is malathion, one of the most commonly applied insecticides in the world. Bennett added, “These findings require the state to stop spraying these pesticides and ban the use in Colorado.”
On September 1, EPA moved to remove 12 PFAS from its approved list of inert ingredients for pesticides. Its announcement stated that “these PFAS are no longer used in any registered pesticide products…” However, this new study demonstrates that the PFAS problem in pesticides goes far beyond the inert ingredients.
Moreover, the study’s detection of unknown PFAS suggests that many of the PFAS being found fall outside the very narrow definition that EPA is developing for regulatory purposes. PEER has been urging EPA to address all PFAS, as a category, rather than continuing its present chemical-by-chemical approach for the hundreds of PFAS currently in use and the unknown number of these chemicals in development.
EPA Announces 2022 Safer Choice Partner of the Year Award Winners
The EPA recently announced 26 Safer Choice Partner of the Year award winners across 14 states and the District of Columbia, recognizing their achievements in the design, manufacture, selection, and use of products with safer chemicals.
The Safer Choice program helps consumers and purchasers for facilities, such as schools and office buildings, find products containing chemical ingredients that are safer for human health and the environment.
“Cleaning and other products made with safer chemicals – like those certified by the Safer Choice program - help protect workers, families, communities, and the planet,” said EPA Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention Deputy Assistant Administrator for Pollution Prevention Jennie Romer. “This year, we’re pleased to recognize a variety of organizations for their support of safer chemistry and sustainability, including organizations that have worked to make these products more affordable and accessible to all, advancing the Biden-Harris Administration’s commitment to equity and environmental justice.”
This year’s awardees represent a wide variety of organizations, including small- and medium-sized businesses, women-owned companies, state and local governments, non-governmental organizations, and trade associations. This year’s winners have all shown a commitment to preventing pollution by reducing, eliminating, or stopping pollution at its source prior to recycling, treatment, or disposal.
Applicants for this year’s awards were encouraged to show how their work advances environmental justice, bolsters resilience to the impacts of climate change, results in cleaner air or water, or improves drinking water quality. Many of the organizations being recognized are working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and combat the climate crisis. For example, several winners offer products with concentrated formulas which reduces water consumption and plastic use. This practice also lowers greenhouse gas emissions by reducing the amount of product that must be transported.
Additionally, many awardees increased access to products with safer chemical ingredients in underserved and overburdened communities. For example, one nonprofit winner conducted targeted outreach in both English and Spanish to promote safer cleaning techniques and products, including Safer Choice-certified products, in food trucks. Many of these businesses are owned and operated by immigrant entrepreneurs. Another winner made its Safer Choice-certified product line more accessible to lower income shoppers by offering affordable prices and making these products available at retailers that often serve low-income communities.
In early 2023, EPA will build on this work by announcing a grant opportunity for projects that can increase supply and demand for safer, environmentally preferable products such as those certified by the Safer Choice program or identified by EPA’s Environmentally Preferable Purchasing program.
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