In 2009, OSHA emerged from the regulatory and enforcement shell that had shrouded it during the eight years of the Bush Administration. Once confirmed, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis announced that a “new Sheriff” was in town, who would refocus the Department of Labor – including OSHA – on tough enforcement and aggressive rulemaking. In both areas, OSHA delivered on Secretary Solis’s promise.

            OSHA Increases Enforcement

Many critics of OSHA during the Bush Administration focused on the seeming “emphasis” on cooperative programs and compliance assistance, at the expense of strong enforcement. In response, the Department of Labor announced in 2009 the hiring of hundreds of additional compliance officers (CSHOs) to refocus the Agency on what many believe is its core mission – enforcing occupational safety and health standards. It also initiated or revamped several new National Emphasis Programs (NEPs) to further focus CSHOs on certain safety and health issues and hazards:

Chemical Facilities National Emphasis Program. OSHA initiated a new NEP to focus enforcement resources on process safety management (PSM) hazards in chemical facilities across the country. The NEP, effective July 27, 2009, is billed as a “new approach for inspecting PSM covered facilities” and “allows for a greater number of inspections by better allocation of OSHA’s resources.”  In its instructions to compliance officers regarding the scope of inspections, OSHA emphasizes implementation of the PSM standard over documentation. Paper programs are not enough and OSHA will make sure that employers are fully implementing their PSM programs.

Recordkeeping National Emphasis Program. In the fall of 2009, OSHA launched its long-awaited Recordkeeping NEP. The NEP subjects employers in certain industries to comprehensive injury and illness records reviews. The purpose of the NEP is to ascertain whether, and to what extent, employers are under-recording injuries and illnesses at the worksite. OSHA cites several recent studies in the NEP asserting under-recording by employers on OSHA 300 logs. The NEP is designed to “identify and correct under-recorded and incorrectly recorded cases.” Employers subjected to an NEP inspection will face what are likely to be the most comprehensive inspections in the history of the Agency, with detailed records reviews, interviews of numerous employees, and an analysis of employer safety incentive programs and the effect of these programs on the reporting of injuries and illnesses.

Facilities that Manufacture Food Flavorings Containing Diacetyl National Emphasis Program. After focusing for years on the hazards of occupational exposure to diacetyl in microwave popcorn production, OSHA finally shifted its focus with respect to diacetyl to employers who manufacture food flavorings containing diacetyl. OSHA cites a Centers for Disease Control (CDC) study finding seven cases of bronchiolitis obliterans – a lung disease associated with exposure to diacetyl – in employees working in facilities where flavorings are manufactured. As part of the NEP, OSHA identifies eighty three facilities for inspection and provides detailed guidance for compliance officers to determine the extent to which these facilities are in overall compliance with their obligations.

Perhaps the most eagerly anticipated – and discussed – enforcement initiative was not an NEP at all, but was related to OSHA enforcement procedures for high to very high occupational exposure to the 2009 H1N1 virus. H1N1 captivated the world this past year, and OSHA spent significant resources addressing the occupational safety and health side of the issue. In the spring and summer of 2009, OSHA responded to the H1N1 outbreak by reissuing and repackaging guidance documents on pandemic influenza that had been previously developed. In November, however, OSHA went further and announced inspection procedures for certain high-hazard H1N1 workplaces, including hospitals, emergency medical centers, doctors’ and dental offices and clinics.

A More Active Regulatory Agenda

In 2009, OSHA also set a course for more activity in the rulemaking arena. As with enforcement, many stakeholders were critical of the Bush Administration’s perceived lack of investment in OSHA’s regulatory agenda. The two most significant regulatory accomplishments during the Bush Administration were the final Hexavalent Chromium rule and the final Employer Payment for PPE rule. Many stakeholders, however, argued that even these accomplishments were essentially forced on the Agency by the federal courts. Whether this is true or not, the first year of the Obama Administration saw the announcement of several new regulatory initiatives and what is even more stunning is that these initiatives were announced without a permanent political head of the Agency.

In 2009, OSHA announced new rulemakings for combustible dust hazards and airborne infectious diseases. OSHA also announced that it would revisit in a new rulemaking the definition of work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSDs) and how WMSDs should be recorded on OSHA 300 logs. This year OSHA also published its proposed rule to update its hazard communication standard. The hazard communication proposal is one of the most significant OSHA rulemakings in over a decade. OSHA is proposing to revise its hazard communication standard to align it with the United Nations’ Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS). If finalized, the rule would affect over 5 million business establishments across the country and potentially over 120 million employees. Over 40 million employees would need to be trained on hazard communication under the proposal. OSHA estimates the annualized compliance costs will be almost $100 million for employers. Annualized benefits are estimated to be approximately $850 million.

Finally, in 2009 OSHA made significant progress on its Cranes and Derricks in Construction proposed rule. OSHA’s proposal was over five years in the making. It was developed by the Agency through negotiated rulemaking, whereby representatives of employers and organized labor work together with OSHA to develop a draft rule. Consensus was reached by the negotiated rulemaking committee in 2004. OSHA held public hearings on the proposed rule in 2009 and Agency staff have been busy reviewing comments received with the goal of issuing a final rule in 2010.

All of this in just over 11 months. And yet, this is likely just the beginning for OSHA as 2010 is expected to bring greater enforcement and regulation. 

(More to come on what to expect in 2010 in the next blog post.)