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Category → Occupational Safety & Health Administration

Recognizing chemical hazards

I’ve got a story in this week’s issue of C&EN on OSHA’s new Hazard Communication standard (aka “HazCom”), the regulation that determines how chemical safety information is relayed to workers, and what bench chemists need to know about the chemical labels and safety data sheets coming their way.

“Memorize the pictograms” is really the take-home point. To that end, it’s important for people to recognize the distinctions between them. The two groups that I think require particular attention are the three health-related pictograms (human profile, exclamation mark, and skull and crossbones) and the flammables and oxidizers (flame and flame over circle). C&EN Design Director Rob Bryson worked with me to group those in print, but that was difficult to do in our web and mobile formats. We posted online a pdf of the print pages as an additional resource for our readers.

Also in this week’s issue is a comment from Robert H. Hill Jr., chair of the ACS Committee on Chemical Safety, discussing the Safety Culture Task Force report on “Creating Safety Cultures in Academic Institutions.”

And now I will sign off for the rest of the week, as I head to Boston to immerse myself in the Investigative Reporters & Editors annual conference! The Friday news round-up will return on June 22.

CSB report on Texas Tech includes recommendation for ACS action

The U.S. Chemical Hazard & Safety Investigation Board today released its report on its investigation into the explosion at Texas Tech University nearly two years ago. While the nature of the problems at Texas Tech have been well documented previously, today’s CSB webinar enabled the attendee to get an overall picture from several perspectives. As the Texas Tech Director of Communications noted, it was a “disturbing, poignant presentation” that essentially pointed out that the organizational structure prevented any chance of effectively protecting students.

Overall, I thought the webinar was well organized, and while I’ve heard some disappointment that no new material was presented, one thing that was clearly new was the recommendations made to Texas Tech, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), and the American Chemical Society. While I am not completely versed on previous CSB reports, I was struck by the directive to ACS to create hazard guidance and evaluation tools. Specifically, the report recommended that ACS “Develop good practice guidance that identifies and describes methodologies to assess and control hazards that can be used successfully in a research laboratory.”

So how should ACS proceed? And is there enough consistency in how research institutions address safety to suggest that one size fits all? How do university environmental health and safety (EH&S) offices and staff fit in? As several institutions have noted, there is great variance in the organizational structure of university safety programs, and many EH&S offices have better working relationships (authority, resources, sufficient staff) with research groups than others where safety is not taken as seriously.


Hazardous waste training, online or hands-on?

A guest post by Russ Phifer, a consultant with WC Environmental and past chair of the ACS Division of Chemical Health & Safety.

Hazardous waste handlers, people involved in waste clean-up operations, and hazmat emergency responders must be trained in OSHA’s Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response Standard (HAZWOPER). As someone who provides safety training, both online and on-site, I’ve been stuck somewhere between amused and alarmed at the number and scope of companies claiming to offer 40-hour, online-only OSHA HAZWOPER training.

The standard itself, in 29CFR 1910.120, doesn’t go into a lot of detail on the training that must be provided initially:

General site workers (such as equipment operators, general laborers and supervisory personnel) engaged in hazardous substance removal or other activities which expose or potentially expose workers to hazardous substances and health hazards shall receive a minimum of 40 hours of instruction off the site, and a minimum of three days actual field experience under the direct supervision of a trained experienced supervisor.

This would seem to imply that the 40 hours of instruction could be by any feasible means. However, looking further at how OSHA has interpreted the training requirements reveals clearly that there is a hands-on requirement and more. According to an OSHA interpretation:

In OSHA’s view, self-paced, interactive computer-based training can serve as a valuable training tool in the context of an overall training program. However, use of computer-based training by itself would not be sufficient to meet the intent of most of OSHA’s training requirements, in particular those of HAZWOPER. Our position on this matter is essentially the same as our policy on the use of training videos, since the two approaches have similar shortcomings. OSHA urges employers to be wary of relying solely on generic, “packaged” training programs in meeting their training requirements. For example, training under HAZWOPER includes site-specific elements and should also, to some degree, be tailored to workers’ assigned duties. …

Equally important is the use of hands-on training and exercises to provide trainees with an opportunity to become familiar with equipment and safe practices in a non-hazardous setting. … It is unlikely that sole reliance on a computer-based training program is likely to achieve these objectives.

There are other interpretations from OSHA that also make clear the need for hands-on training, particularly in relation to donning and doffing personal protective equipment and working with site-specific equipment.

So how is it that one provider of online 40-hour training can offer this claim?

For those students who are looking to take the OSHA 40 Hour HAZWOPER training from their computer via the internet, we offer a course that can be completed entirely online. Instead of hands-on training, students are shown over 50 short video clips as if they were at the 8-hour hands-on session. These video clips are required viewing by each participant. The video clips demonstrate HAZWOPER equipment in great detail and students have the advantage to review the videos over and over as needed during their course.

And, from another provider:

We usually recommend online training to individuals who prefer a relaxed, comfortable, self-paced environment and on-site training for those who desire a more “hands-on” learning experience. In general, online learning is the more cost-effective choice for the individual learner.

It seems to me that the employer is risking a great deal by trying to document 40-hour training solely through online sources. Yet there are several providers who claim their courses are “OSHA Accepted” or “OSHA verified.” We’re not talking one or two sites–there appear to be dozens offering this training online! My favorite is a provider advertising: “Need a Certificate Now? A temporary printable certificate will be made available immediately upon successful completion of course.”

Some of these sites do have disclaimers regarding the need for hands-on training, though I’m not sure everyone would catch the one in 6.5 point typeface, in light green, disclaiming:

Note: Trainees must have hands-on training in the donning, doffing, and use of the Personal Protective Equipment and/or suplemental [sic] equipment required for their jobsite(s) in accordance with 29 CFR 1910.120. This is typically done at the jobsite by the student’s employer. Workers must then have at least three days of actual field supervision at the site under a trained, seasoned supervisor. The three days field experience under a trained, experienced supervisor is the responsibility of the student’s employer.

There are clearly advantages to online training of employees, particularly in respect to cost and time management. So what is reasonable to include in an online course, and how much time needs to be spent with a qualified trainer in person? My feeling is that 32 hours of online training covering the mandatory topics and eight hours of hands-on training is reasonable. The hands-on portion should include, at minimum, the following: donning and doffing personal protective equipment, working with monitoring equipment, practice/demonstration of sampling techniques, and a question-and-answer period.

Whither regulations

A guest post by Russ Phifer, a consultant with WC Environmental and past chair of the ACS Division of Chemical Health & Safety.

As an environmental health and safety consultant, I always have an eye open for new laws and regulations that impact air, water, waste, or worker safety. Do you realize the last major piece of EHS legislation was actually the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990? That’s 20 years since Congress has introduced anything new in our field. While OSHA continually comes out with new revisions to the OSH Act of 1970, when was the last significant new regulation?

Sure, OSHA recently came out with new crane safety regulations and has addressed combustible dust. The agency is also in the process of reconciling its regulations to meet the requirements of the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals. But seriously, whatever happened to ergonomic safety? The proposed regulation, which was issued in 2001, has gone nowhere. All OSHA has done is prepare voluntary guidelines, without the force of regulation.

In 1989, OSHA issued a list of 376 additional chemicals with permissible exposure limits to be covered under the agency’s Subpart Z standards for “Toxic and Hazardous Substances.” Only a select few have actually been implemented to protect workers from chemical exposures. Clearly, the regulated community, which consists of labor and management, can’t agree on what should be regulated, and how. Terms like “economic feasibility” and “insufficiently protective” don’t mesh well.

Why the dearth of any significant new regulations since 1990? Has the U.S. done all it can to protect our environment and our workforce? Are we “done”? Do those air, water, waste and worker safety regulations implemented from 1970 to 1990 adequately protect us? Is the anti-government pressure by the public responsible? A good topic for debate.

Texas Tech correction

I had to correct the Texas Tech story last week. The correction illustrates an important point in academic laboratory health and safety: There may be no one overseeing a public university’s health and safety program.

The original paragraphs in Texas Tech Lessons:

The internal TTU investigation identified multiple violations of the university’s chemical hygiene plan (CHP). A CHP is required by the federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration for laboratories that use hazardous chemicals. OSHA sets requirements for what must be covered in a CHP, but it is up to the organization to decide how those requirements are addressed, says Russell W. Phifer, a safety consultant and past-chair of ACS’s Division of Chemical Health & Safety. The organization then must comply with the policies and procedures it establishes. In TTU’s investigation, the university found a lack of training and standard operating procedures, among other deficiencies.

So far, OSHA itself has not investigated the incident. OSHA typically does not get directly involved unless there is a fatality or multiple injuries requiring hospitalization or unless an institution or company has an accident rate that is much higher than comparable establishments, Phifer says. If an employee complains to OSHA, the agency sends a letter to the employer asking for a response to the charges and will investigate if the response is deemed inadequate, Phifer says.

The correction:

The federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration does not oversee laboratory safety at Texas Tech University because OSHA does not have jurisdiction over public employees. Texas Tech is required by a Texas governor’s executive order to develop and implement a risk management and safety program for its employees and the citizens it serves.

Texas does have a state Office of Risk Management, but spokesman Paul Harris says that the office does not cover the University of Texas, Texas A&M University, or Texas Tech University.

The error highlights a regulatory gap that affects a lot of people: In U.S. states and territories that have not developed their own occupational safety and health programs and continue to rely on federal OSHA coverage, public workers are not protected. Here’s the breakdown:

  • States and territories with OSHA-approved plans that cover all workers, public and private: Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, Tennesssee, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, Wyoming
  • States and territories with plans that cover only public workers (private workers fall under federal OSHA): Connecticut, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Virgin Islands
  • States and territories that fall fully under federal OSHA: Alabama, American Samoa, Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Guam, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Northern Marianas Islands, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Texas, West Virginia, Wisconsin

Last week, OSHA released a report on its evaluation of the state plans.

Some people would probably argue that liability concerns are effective at keeping universities and other public workplaces on their toes and that we don’t need more bureaucracy. Others clearly disagree. The Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board has been lobbying for OSHA coverage of public workers  since at least 2007, after it investigated a 2006 incident at a Florida wastewater treatment plant in which two municipal workers were killed after cutting torches ignited methanol vapor. “It is simply inequitable to afford public employees with lesser workplace protections than workers in private industry,” said then-CSB chairman Carolyn W. Merritt in 2007 congressional testimony.

Chemical exposure data from OSHA

If you’ve got some time on your hands, here’s some potentially interesting info to play with: the federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) has released 15 years of data detailing workplace exposure to chemicals. From the press release:

The data is comprised of measurements taken by OSHA compliance officers during the course of inspections. It includes exposure levels to hazardous chemicals including asbestos, benzene, beryllium, cadmium, lead, nickel, silica, and others. The data offers insights into the levels of toxic chemicals commonly found in workplaces, as well as insights into how chemical exposure levels to specific chemicals are distributed across industries, geographical areas and time.

Right now the data is available for download as either one very large (unzipped, 1.9 GB) or several smaller XML files, but the agency says it’s also developing “an easy to use online search tool.” (And if you know of a good way to get the data into a more usable form, such as a spreadsheet, please let me know!)