Consultant Charges NIOSH Has Failed to Protect Workers

Oct. 15, 2003
For the past two decades, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has not fulfilled its congressional mandate to conduct toxic substance research and develop exposure limits, according to a research report by Linda Chaff, a consultant and principal of Chaff & Co.

A central allegation of the Chaff report is that after producing an average of 23 criteria documents with Recommended Exposure Limits (RELs) each year in the 1970's, NIOSH issued a total of four in the 1990s and none since 2000.

Charging that NIOSH has repeatedly ignored her allegations, Chaff, who has worked on contracts for NIOSH and other government agencies, released her report to the public at a meeting of the National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (NACOSH).

The committee directed NIOSH to respond to Chaff's report, and the institute released a 35-page review of the Chaff report. The NIOSH review included a cover letter from its director, John Howard, who wrote to NACOSH that NIOSH is "keenly interested in fostering involvement by stakeholders" and "very much appreciates the time and effort that Ms. Chaff" put into her report.

The NIOSH review did not dispute Chaff's allegation about the steep drop in the number of criteria documents and RELs produced, and "acknowledges that there is a reservoir of chemicals that could benefit from REL development." The review explained, however, "The institute must balance this need against an array of new and emerging occupational health problems."

The review pointed out that the development of criteria documents is often a lengthy process requiring extensive research. "In balancing the need for criteria documents with the need to disseminate important information and recommendations on specific occupational problems, the Institute has tried to address the most pressing issues by developing more concise documents, e.g. alerts, hazard reviews, and other communication products."

In an interview, Chaff dismissed the NIOSH review of her report. "This [review] shows a callous disregard for NIOSH's constituents it's an agency out of control," Chaff declared.

Since receiving the report, Chaff has been in direct contact with Howard, who asked that she send him a list of specific questions she would like addressed.

In an Oct. 1 letter to NIOSH, Chaff asked, among other things, for specific details about the development of recent criteria for toxic materials that would determine "exposure levels at which no employee will suffer impaired health or diminished life expectancy as a result of his work experience. OSH Act 20(a) (3)."

An Oct. 10 reply from NIOSH offered no new information on RELs or criteria documents, and referred instead to the institute's previous review of the Chaff report.

In an interview, Chaff said the most recent NIOSH response provided "not answers to my questions, but still more spin."

Chaff, who lives in Chattanooga, Tenn., said she is considering whether to continue to seek answers from NIOSH, or to ask for help from her two Republican U.S. senators: Bill Frist and Lamar Alexander. Both senators sit on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, and she said they have expressed interest and support for her effort to increase NIOSH's accountability.

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