Hayes to Chao: Answer My Letters!

The day after Labor Secretary Elaine Chao re-appointed public representative Ron Hayes to a one-year term on an OSHA advisory panel, Hayes sharply criticized her for a "lack of respect" because of long delays in answering two of his letters.

In a Sept. 7, 2002 letter to Chao, Hayes expressed concern about the "clarity, reliability, availability and….use [of] material safety data sheets" (MSDS). These sheets are used in the chemical industry to report information on the use of hazardous chemicals. Hayes believes OSHA inspectors rarely check MSDSs for accuracy, and that they could be more "user-friendly" for the average worker.

The Sept. 7 letter was not acknowledged or answered until Dec. 17, and because of a similar delay in a letter he wrote in 2001, Hayes is now asking Chao to review her correspondence policy and find a way to respond to issues more quickly.

Hayes, a member of the National Advisory Council on Occupational Safety and Health (NACOSH), the director of the FIGHT (Families in Grief Hold Together) Project and a long-time OSHA gadfly, explained in a Jan. 7 interview why Chao's delays in answering his letters so disturbed him.

"I have access to senators and OSHA, and now I'm on NACOSH," Hayes explained. "But what about a janitor in Podunk? If this is how they treat my letters, imagine how they'll treat letters from the average worker."

Hayes complained that in addition to being late, Chao's reply was unsatisfactory.

"She wrote that the issues I raised have been a 'long-standing concern to OSHA,'" Hayes said. "My response to that is, if it's a long-standing concern, why haven't you fixed it?"

Chao's Dec. 17 letter also stated that OSHA does not compose MSDSs, and that because the sheets have many audiences besides the average worker, "this may result in a more technical presentation of information." Chao wrote that she had asked OSHA Administrator John Henshaw to review the current hazard communication requirements and to recommend whether changes should be made.

Hayes is not alone in expressing concern about the accuracy of MSDSs.

Carolyn Merritt, chair of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB), said her organization has often found deficiencies in the hazard information communicated to workers, including the information contained in MSDSs.

"Workers have died of burns from substances which according to their MSDSs have zero flammability," she added. "It's a problem that concerns us how do you get uniform, accurate, protective information to process operators and the users of chemicals?"

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