Lawmakers: OSHA Standard Needed for Diacetyl

Congressional leaders and critics blasted OSHA's April 24 announcement of its national emphasis program that will target microwave popcorn facilities, arguing that the agency's program isn't enough to protect workers from the hazards of exposure to the butter flavoring agent diacetyl.

In a statement, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., said OSHA's launching of its national emphasis program “falls short of what is necessary to prevent deaths and serious illnesses among workers in the food-flavoring industry."

“OSHA scientists urged broad action in 2002 and 2003 after the first reports of 'popcorn lung' appeared in 2000,” Miller said. “Instead of issuing tough standards then, OSHA relied on unenforceable voluntary measures to protect workers.”

During a hearing held by the House Education and Labor Committee's Subcommittee on Workforce Protection, Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., also agreed that OSHA's national emphasis program – while an improvement over its previous efforts – still is not a replacement for enforceable standards.

According to OSHA, the national emphasis program will apply to all workplaces where butter-flavored microwave popcorn is being manufactured and will provide direction on inspection targeting and procedures, methods of controlling the hazard and compliance assistance. The agency has noted that it intends to inspect all microwave popcorn facilities by the end of the year. (For more, read “OSHA Launches Diacetyl Program.”)

“This Unregulated Industry Virtually Destroyed My Life”

Eric Peoples, a former worker at a popcorn plant in Jasper, Kan., testified during the hearing and gave those present a poignant look at how devastating bronchiolitis obliterans, or “popcorn lung” disease, can be for a person.

Currently living on 24 percent lung capacity, the 35-year-old was told that he will need a double-lung transplant in order to live. Peoples said he is baffled as to why it has taken OSHA so long to take action in protecting workers from the toxic agent that caused the disease he is currently living with.

“I played by the rules. I worked to support my family,” Peoples said. “This unregulated industry virtually destroyed my life.”

“Is Diacetyl a Hazard?”

Woolsey asked OSHA Administrator Edwin Foulke Jr., who also testified at the hearing, why the national emphasis program focuses solely on microwave popcorn plants and not on other areas such as manufacturing and mix flavoring plants as well as bakeries and snack food factories, where there reportedly have been cases of popcorn lung.

“Wouldn't it make sense to expand this program anywhere where food-flavoring chemicals are in use?” Woolsey asked.

Foulke responded that at this moment, the agent diacetyl is considered a “substance of suspicion.”

“Is diacetyl a hazard? Unfortunately, this isn't an easy yes or no answer,” Foulke said. “We believe there is strong evidence that butter flavoring presents hazards to employees and that such flavorings are complex mixtures of various substances.”

Lag Time Criticized

A point of contention for many OSHA critics is the lag time between the first documented cases of popcorn lung and when the agency finally decided to take action.

In 2000, the Missouri Department of Health notified OSHA that 20 workers from one popcorn plant had been diagnosed with bronchiolitis obliterans, and the department requested that OSHA inspect the facility. Although OSHA sent an inspector there, the agency determined that the plant “was in compliance.”

A team of investigators from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) investigated the facility and determined that plant employees’ rates of chronic cough and shortness of breath were 2.6 times the national average, adjusting for both smoking and age. (For more, read “NIOSH: Work in Popcorn Factory Increases Risk of Lung Disease.”)

Although NIOSH reported the results of its investigation in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report and the New England Journal of Medicine in 2002, critics can't understand why it has taken OSHA so long to act on the information.

OSHA's Strategy is “to Look Busy”

David Michaels, an occupational health expert at George Washington University – who will be testifying at another Capitol Hill hearing on OSHA's effectiveness on April 26 – asserted on his blog, “The Pump Handle,” that the agency's tactic right now is “to look busy.”

“So, OSHA was alerted to cases of bronchiolitis obliterans in 2000, and would have learned of results of NIOSH’s Missouri investigation in 2002, if not earlier,” Michaels wrote on his blog. “One could say 'better late than never,' but being late in this case has meant more cases of bronchiolitis obliterans, and more workers on the lung transplant list.”

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