By David Michaels

In the din of the recent press attention and Senate and House hearings on about OSHA’s failings, it’s easy to forget that OSHA has saved many lives, too. Some evidence on that score comes from a new paper three colleagues and I have just published in Chest (Welch LS, Haile E, Dement J, Michaels D. Change in prevalence of asbestos-related disease among sheet metal workers 1986 to 2004. Chest. 2007;131:863-9).

Before the newly formed OSHA issued its first asbestos standard in 1971, uncontrolled asbestos exposure occurred in numerous workplaces across the country. OSHA subsequently strengthened its asbestos standard several times, forcing employers to implement controls that have saved countless lives.

Evidence of the impact of OSHA’s regulation of asbestos work comes from the national study of asbestos disease in sheet metal workers, in which 18,000 members of the Sheet Metal Workers International Union were screened for asbestos disease between 1986 and 2004.

Here’s what we found: after controlling for age and smoking, the strongest predictor for chest X-ray sign of asbestos-related disease was the calendar year in which the worker began sheet metal work. We concluded that the results suggest “that the efforts to reduce asbestos exposure in the 1980s through strengthened Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulation have had a positive public health impact.”

Asbestos is not OSHA’s only success, of course. As I testified at a Senate hearing a few weeks ago, the agency’s cotton dust standard eliminated byssinosis, a once common disease among U.S. textile workers, and the OSHA lead standard has no doubt prevented many cases of lead poisoning.

But OSHA took on asbestos, lead and cotton dust in the 1970s, and has issued few new standards for chemical hazards in the last decade. Here at The Pump Handle, we’ve been talking a lot about OSHA’s failure to protect workers from diacetyl. But there are plenty of other examples.

Take beryllium, a remarkable metal that is lighter than aluminum yet stiffer than steel. Its alloys and compounds exhibit a host of unusual technical characteristics. At some point in almost every production process involving beryllium, fine dust or fumes of the metal or its compound are released into the air. Breathing the tiniest amounts can cause disability and death from chronic beryllium disease.

The OSHA beryllium standard was set by two Atomic Energy Commission Scientists riding in a taxi cab in 1948. By the early 1990s, the Department of Energy (DOE) recognized the standard was not adequately protective. In 1999, during the period I was Assistant Secretary, DOE issued a new standard 10 times stronger. Even the beryllium industry has come around to the position that the current OSHA standard is not adequately protective – the industry’s experts recognize that workers get sick at exposure levels below the current OSHA standard.

Today, the federal government finds itself in the embarrassing position of explaining why the employees of DOE and its contractors are now covered by a workplace rule ten times more protective than the one covering workers in the private sector.

Beryllium is but one example, one about which we know a great deal. OSHA currently enforces permissible exposure limits for only about 500 chemicals, a small fraction of the thousands of substances present in the American workplace. OSHA even lacks standards for some of the more common chemicals; there are OSHA standards for fewer than 200 of the approximately 3,000 chemicals characterized by the EPA as High Production Volume (more than a million pounds of the substance is produced or imported each year). In the more than 35 years since OSHA began it has issued new standards for only about 30 substances.

The remaining exposure limits were adopted by OSHA in 1970, from the recommendations of private voluntary organizations.  Many of these exposure limits were already out of date in 1970, when OSHA adopted them. Moreover, these are not comprehensive standards with requirements for employers to conduct exposure monitoring and provide medical surveillance or worker training, but only exposure limits. As a result, for most hazardous chemicals, OSHA’s standards are either inadequate or totally absent.

Chemical by chemical standard setting would be a painfully time- and resource-intensive process for any agency, much less this beleaguered one. OSHA doesn’t have the staff to work on more than one or two standards at a time, and, with no judicial or congressional oversight to speed the process, each standard takes years to complete. Unless things change radically, only a handful of the thousands of chemicals in daily use in American workplaces will ever be the subject of an OSHA standard.

Now is the time to begin to remedy this, or at least to discuss how. We’ll be posting more on this at TPH. In the meantime, Professor Frank Mirer, in his testimony at the recent hearing of the House Education and Labor Committee, proposes some solutions. I do also in my Senate testimony. Send your suggestions in.

David Michaels heads the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP) and is Professor and Associate Chairman in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services.