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June 12, 2014
OSHA chief updates safety professionals on agency initiatives: Temp workers, silica, and more
By Emily Scace, Senior Editor, Safety

Speaking to an audience of safety professionals at the Safety 2014, the annual conference of the American Society of Safety Engineers, in Orlando, Florida, OSHA chief Dr. David Michaels updated conference attendees on agency initiatives and issues of concern. Keep reading to learn what he had to say.

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Pointing to 2012 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) (the most recent year available), Michaels emphasized that although the work-related fatality rate is the lowest it has ever been and continues to decline, certain industries are seeing a concerning trend in the opposite direction.

Construction in particular has seen its fatality rates increase with the improving economy. “In terms of construction, we remain very interested in this question of falls,” Michaels said. From June 2-6, OSHA held a national safety stand-down to address falls in construction, which, according to Michaels, reached over a million workers and 25,000 employers. Falls remain the leading cause of death in the construction industry, responsible for 35 percent of fatalities in 2012.

Focus on temporary workers

Michaels also spoke about OSHA’s temporary worker initiative, which is aimed at ensuring that temporary workers receive the same safety and health protections as their non-contingent counterparts. Temporary workers typically experience injury and fatality rates higher than those of other workers and in some cases have been killed on their first day on the job due to inadequate training.

One reason for the increased risk to temps, according to Michaels, stems from the fact that temporary workers are often new employees several times per year, and new employees are three to four times more likely to be injured or killed on the job than those with more experience. In addition, temps are often given the most hazardous job assignments, and host employers are often reluctant to devote adequate resources in the form of training, personal protective equipment (PPE), and other measures to protect temp workers from safety and health hazards.

Michaels emphasized that employers have a responsibility to protect the safety and health of all workers, regardless of whether they're full-time, part-time, or temporary. Training on the hazards to which workers will be exposed and safe work practices for must be provided, and it must be in a language and vocabulary that workers can understand.

Silica proposal moving forward

Michaels also updated the audience on the status of OSHA’s proposal to reduce the permissible exposure limit (PEL) for crystalline silica, originally issued in September 2013. Silica exposure and awareness of silicosis is nothing new, according to Michaels; in fact, NIOSH recommended lowering the PEL in the 1970s.

However, the issue is becoming more urgent, said Michaels. “We believe the exposures are getting worse because there is more power equipment used in construction,” he noted. “It's not complicated to reduce silica exposure, and it’s not expensive.” Simple methods, such as wetting down dust-generating processes, can be very effective, and Michaels emphasized that the proposed rule allows employers the flexibility to determine the most appropriate methods for controlling silica exposures at their worksites.

In response to a question from an audience member, Michaels stated that the proposed silica standard is progressing well, and he expects a final rule to be issued in 2016.

Infectious disease, I2P2, and more

Although OSHA’s most recent regulatory agenda shifted the initiative on requiring injury and illness prevention plans (I2P2s) to the “long-term action” category, Michaels said employers are increasingly embracing I2P2s and similar safety and health management systems as a best practice. OSHA has been creating tools to help employers develop these systems, including a newly launched online video game called the OSHA Hazard Identification Training Tool, available at https://www.osha.gov/hazfinder.

Another initiative moving forward, according to Michaels, is a potential infectious disease standard to protect workers from tuberculosis and other diseases that do not fall under the bloodborne pathogens regulation. Michaels said OSHA is planning to convene a panel under the Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act (SBREFA) soon to assess the potential impact of an infectious disease rule on small businesses and address feasibility concerns.

In response to an audience question asking advice for making the workplace safer, Michaels urged safety professionals to show employers that keeping workers safe is not a contradictory goal to maximizing profitability. “Well managed companies are both more profitable and safer,” he said.

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