Unions Sue To Force OSHA To Set Clean Air Standards in Factories

Oct. 22, 2003
The United Auto Workers (UAW) and the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) filed suit Oct. 21 against Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, seeking to compel OSHA to set clean air standards in U.S. factories.

The lawsuit, International Union UAW and United Steelworkers of America vs. Chao, was filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia. The lawsuit asks the court to order OSHA to issue standards reducing the permissible exposure to metalworking fluids in U.S. workplaces.

"The UAW petitioned OSHA to take action on metalworking fluids 10 years ago," said UAW President Ron Gettelfinger. "Since then, millions of factory workers have been exposed to these hazardous chemicals. Tragically, some have developed asthma, pulmonary fibrosis or other severe respiratory ailments, while others have cancer because of the metalworking fluid mists they've been forced to breathe at work."

Gettelfinger claims OSHA "has failed miserably" in its responsibility to protect American workers. "Our lawsuit with the Steelworkers seeks to right this wrong, and offer our members and other workers who are exposed to these chemicals the protection they deserve," he said.

USWA President Leo Gerard added, "All we are asking is that OSHA do its job and take needed action to protect the health and safety of American workers."

According to the unions, more than 1 million workers are exposed each year to metalworking fluids, which are widely used in the manufacture of autos, farm equipment, aircraft and other metal products.

Breathing mist from metalworking fluids can cause severe respiratory ailments, including asthma and hypersensitivity pneumonitis, an inflammation of the lungs that frequently leads to hospitalization. Continued exposure can lead to pulmonary fibrosis, or permanent scarring of the lungs, which can be fatal.

The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has found substantial evidence that metalworking fluids cause cancer of the larynx, rectum, pancreas, skin, scrotum and bladder.

The UAW says there have been 16-recorded outbreaks of hypersensitivity pneumonitis in U.S. factories since the union first petitioned OSHA in 1993 to reduce worker exposure to metalworking fluids.

One recent outbreak occurred at a TRW automotive plant in Mount Vernon, Ohio, in January 2001, says the union. Several UAW members were admitted to intensive care with lung disease, and by November of that year, 107 workers were placed on medical restrictions due to respiratory problems and 37 suffered long-term disability.

An OSHA inspection at the plant found that levels of exposure to metalworking fluids were within "acceptable" limits. The present OSHA standard, issued in 1971, requires that no worker be exposed to more than 5 milligrams of oil-based metalworking fluids per cubic meter of air (5.0 mg/m3) during an eight-hour day. There is no exposure limit for synthetic fluids.

In 1998, NIOSH determined that the 5 milligrams standard for oil-based fluids exposed workers to serious health hazards, and recommended a standard 10 times more stringent 0.5 milligram per cubic meter. NIOSH's recommendation applied to both oil-based and synthetic metalworking fluids.

Shortly after the UAW petitioned OSHA to reduce worker exposure to metalworking fluids in 1993, the agency identified metal working fluids as a regulatory priority. In a procedure that has been used only twice in the agency's history, OSHA appointed a Metalworking Fluids Standards Advisory Committee, including labor, management and public health representatives.

In July 1999, after collecting a substantial body of evidence about metalworking fluids, associated health hazards and economically and technically feasible means of reducing worker exposure, and months of public meetings, the committee voted to recommend that OSHA adopt the standard suggested by NIOSH of 0.5 milligram per cubic meter of air for both oil and synthetic metalworking fluids.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act states that within 60 days of such a recommendation by a duly appointed Standards Advisory Committee, OSHA is required to issue a standard or to state reasons for not doing so. Four years after the Metalworking Fluids Standards Advisory Committee made its recommendation, OSHA withdrew the new rule from active consideration.

"It is way past time for OSHA to stand up to the industry lobbyists who don't care how many workers suffer from exposure to metalworking fluids," Gerard stated.

An OSHA spokesperson commented, "We have not seen this case, but OSHA places the health and safety of workers as a top priority."

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