Chronicling OSHA in 2007: An Overview

The year 2008 is fast approaching and this means it is time to take stock of what OSHA has – and has not – accomplished in 2007.

Every year, OSHA is faced with a unique set of challenges and 2007 wasn’t any different. When the Democratic Congress became a majority party in November 2006, labor and industry advocates knew OSHA would be called to the bench to answer tough questions, particularly from Congressional leaders who have disapproved of the agency’s focus on compliance assistance over enforcement since President George W. Bush took office.

In addition, 2007 was the year when OSHA Administrator Edwin Foulke began to put his stamp on an agency widely criticized by worker advocates as unwilling to vigorously enforce and update safety and health regulations. He was welcomed into OSHA on March 2006 and was on a learning curve for the next nine months. But in 2007, Foulke had to show what he was made of.

For this reason, decided to assess how OSHA handled itself in 2007 via a series of interviews with distinguished occupational safety and health professionals and experts based in Washington D.C. For this year-end review, which will take form as a three-part series starting on Jan. 2, 2008, we will analyze what OSHA accomplished and didn’t accomplish in 2007, what it should and shouldn’t have done and if Congressional oversight had any impact in the way it conducted business.

But the biggest question of all, to use NYCOSH Executive Director Joel Shufro’s words in last year’s analysis, may be: Is OSHA still relevant to worker safety and health?

First, let’s take a look at some of the OSHA-related events that took place in 2007:

  • Standard-setting: In November, OSHA announced the employer payment for PPE rule, making it the only standard issued throughout the year. The agency claimed it was in the works all along, but many counter that a lawsuit issued by the AFL-CIO and the United Commercial Workers Union, as well a Congressional pressure, definitely played a hand in the process.
  • Congressional Oversight: Experts said that without Congress’s involvement, OSHA would have delayed issuing the PPE rule and would have done nothing about the diacetyl issue. In addition, the agency confronted hearings dealing with OSHA coverage for public workers, OSHA’s lack of enforcement on the nation’s oil refineries as a result of the Chemical Safety and Investigation Board’s (CSB) scathing report and charges alleging that the agency failed to protect Ground Zero workers by not enforcing health and safety regulations.
  • Diacetyl: OSHA initiated a national emphasis program aimed to address the hazards associated with working with butter flavorings containing diacetyl after the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) petitioned for an emergency temporary standard. Claiming this wasn’t enough, Congress introduced a bill that would force the agency to issue a final rule on diacetyl. In September, OSHA announced it would begin the process to regulate the flavoring agent and also issued a guidance document.
  • CSB Report on BP Texas City Explosion: OSHA received scathing reviews from the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation report, which stated the agency failed to provide effective oversight of BP's Texas City, Texas, refinery – where 15 workers were killed and 180 others were hurt in a 2005 explosion.
  • Court Mandates Release of Beryllium Records: Prompted by a lawsuit filed by former OSHA regional administrator Adam Finkel, a federal court ruled that OSHA should make its database of information on worker exposure to toxic substances available to researchers and policymakers.
  • OSHA Accomplishments: Despite its challenges, OSHA did get some things done in the past year. In addition to the final PPE rule, the agency issued an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking on power press safety and on Phase III of the Standards Improvement Project, as well as a notice of proposed rulemaking on the PPE consensus standard and on shipyard for employment standards. OSHA also published two pandemic flu guidance documents and published an online hurricane matrix for response and recovery resources. It formed 71 new alliances, 55 strategic partnerships and welcomed 255 new Voluntary Protection Program participants. But most importantly, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that fiscal year 2006 fatal injury rates ((3.9 fatalities per 100,000) is at its all-time low.

Stay tuned for our first installment of our series Chronicling OSHA in 2007, which will take a look at how Congressional oversight affected OSHA and the way it conducted business in 2007.

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