Spring 2003 Update
Author's Note: Precious little in industrial hygiene has changed since this article was first published in New Solutions in spring 1991. Some industrial hygienists do practice using the principles outlined here, especially those working for unions, COSH groups, and occupational health clinics. However, most industrial hygienists, including those who work for OSHA, are still dependent on exposure limits and air sampling. Due to court action, the "updated" OSHA PELs never came to fruition. On the plus side, a few more comprehensive OSHA standards for chemicals have been promulgated. The OSHA standards on personal protective equipment, including respirators, have been revised. NIOSH has many new publications available. The Internet has dramatically increased access to health and safety information. These changes are reflected in this updated version of Playing Industrial Hygiene to Win.
In the wider world during the past decade, progressive folks, especially within the environmental movement, have been working on the "Precautionary Principle". I believe this work has tremendous potential for application to occupational health and is quite relevant to playing industrial hygiene to win. The Precautionary Principle, proposed as a new guideline in environmental decision-making, suggests that when an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established. The principle has four central components: taking preventive action in the face of uncertainty; shifting the burden of proof to the proponents of an activity; exploring a wide range of alternatives to possibly harmful actions; and increasing public participation in decision making.
For more information, please visit these web sites:
Related Articles by the Author:
1. Controlling Chemical Exposure: Industrial Hygiene Fact Sheets - Concise Guidance on 16 Components of Industrial Hygiene Controls - www.state.nj.us/health/eoh/survweb/ihfs.pdf
2. Clear and Complete Presentation of Air Sampling Data - New Solutions, Volume 2, Number 2, 247-252, 1999
3. Ending OSHA's Dependence on Exposure Limits, Applied Occupational and Environmental Hygiene, 10 (6), 520-522, June 1995, in OSHA Compliance Issues column.
Your comments and suggestions on any of these articles are most welcome. Please e-mail me at email@example.com.
ITEM - Numerous workers become sensitized to toluene diisocyanate (TDI) at a plant manufacturing foam automobile seats. Personal air sampling conducted by corporate industrial hygienists consistently shows levels of TDI to be within all legal and recommended standards.
ITEM - Dozens of workers in a new office building suffer eye, nose and throat irritation. Vendors who supplied the furniture, partitions and carpeting all reveal that they used formaldehyde in their products. Air samples collected by an indoor air quality consultant, however, show formaldehyde levels in compliance with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standard.
ITEM - Workers at a construction site become ill and bulk samples of the soil reveal high levels of phenols and many other chemicals. Industrial hygienists from OSHA collect personal air samples but can find no violations of OSHA's Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs).
ITEM - Machinery noise levels at a carburetor-rebuilding factory create stressful working conditions and damage workers' hearing. An OSHA industrial hygienist measures noise levels high enough for management to require workers to wear earplugs but not high enough to require management to quiet the machinery.
Industrial hygienists can be extremely helpful to workers by identifying, evaluating and recommending controls for health hazards on the job. Experience has shown, however, that indus-trial hygienists' personal exposure monitoring and exposure limits have been used to "scientifically prove" that working conditions are "safe" when they were not, even when workers were getting sick.
The idea of measuring how much of a chemical, radiation, noise or other hazard a worker is exposed to and comparing this to a level that has been proven to be safe is not a bad idea. But there are many problems with the way this has worked in practice.
Ø Problem I: Most chemicals and other hazards have not had adequate long-term tests conducted to determine whether they can cause cancer, damage brain and nervous system function, lung function, immune and hormone systems function, reproductive system function or many other vital bodily function.
Ø Problem 2: Legal or recommended limits are often thousands of times too high to protect health. Many limits were set using unscientific, irregular procedures and corporations have strongly influenced or even dictated the outcome.
Ø Problem 3: OSHA tried to "update" its PELs in 1988. However, it did not use the latest scientific methods or information to do so, and the new PELs were only slightly more protective than the old ones. The new rule was remanded by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and these limits are not currently in force.
Ø Problem 4: Most measurements of worker exposure have been incomplete and inaccurate.
Ø Problem 5: Industrial hygienists' preoccupation with the ritual of air sampling has given the impression that this is the best way to approach an occupational health problem and detracted from other, more useful activities that industrial hygienists can perform such as evaluating controls.
Because of these problems, industrial hygiene monitoring usually paints a rosy picture of conditions in the workplace by giving it a "Clean Bill of Health." Even though this is often false, it is hard to dispute because it appears to be quantitative and scientific.
BEWARE THE "CLEAN BILL OF HEALTH"
Workers and their unions should be aware of the potential use of industrial hygiene monitoring against them. Certain wording in an industrial hygiene report is often a tip-off that a "Clean Bill of Health" is in the making. Two examples are: 1. "No violations of OSHA standards were found." This statement seems designed to give peace of mind to those unfamiliar with the inadequate nature of most OSHA standards. It also implies that compliance with every standard was checked - a highly unlikely possibility 2. "The concentrations of; y and z were found to be well below any legal or recommended standard." This statement is easily misinterpreted to mean that no adverse health effects are expected at the levels found. The statement also implies that exposure to these particular chemicals is the only health concern at the workplace.
DEALING WITH THE INDUSTRIAL HYGIENIST
For whom the industrial hygienist works greatly influences how willing and able he or she will be to listen to and assist workers and unions. The majority of industrial hygienists work for corporations/employers either directly or as hired consultants. Many want to do a good job but are hampered by their employer. Some are used as little more than technicians to measure air contaminants. Their professional judgment and experience rarely are called upon to make recommendations for improvement in the workplace. In some cases, a union may be powerful enough to have a corporate industrial hygienist do a proper evaluation and make useful recommendations. The tendency, however, of a corporate industrial hygienist will be not to talk to the union unless it demands involvement. Contract language that mandates union involvement is therefore, very helpful.
Obviously, it is ideal if the industrial hygienist works for the union directly or is hired as a union consultant. The courts have ruled that, under the National Labor Relations Act, unions have the right to have their own health and safety expert make workplace surveys and recommend improvements. Ongoing relations between the union health and safety committee and the industrial hygienist are necessary to evaluate the workplace, make educated tactical choices and educate members. These judgments require union committees to think about priority setting both to get victories and to confront the most serious hazards.
Because of their dependence on air sampling, poor quality exposure limits, and other problems discussed later, government industrial hygienists working for OSHA really have their hands tied at this time unless the problem is one of the few where OSHA has a useful standard (see Appendix 2). In most cases involving chemical exposure, they will be unable to issue citations. However, they should be asked to write a letter describing the hazards they observed but could not cite and making control recommendations.
Hygienists working for the National Institute for Occupational Safety andH ealth (NIOSH) or state governments usually have the freedom to write reports containing strong recommendations and should be asked to do so. It will be totally up to the union to negotiate with management to implement the recommendations, however, since these agencies have no enforcement powers.
MISINTERPRETATION OF OSHA HEALTH INSPECTIONS
OSHA health inspections that do not result in citations are especially subject to misinterpretation as a "Clean Bill of Health." When OSHA cannot find violations of its exposure limits for chemicals, radiation or noise, it is not permitted to issue a citation ordering the employer to correct the problems. The employer is then likely to claim that there are no health hazards in the workplace even when workers are experiencing health problems. Even if a citation is issued, people mistakenly may believe that the citation lists everything wrong in the workplace.
In reality, there may be many hazards in the workplace that OSHA did not observe or OSHA's industrial hygiene sampling did not pick up. Some of the reasons for this could be:
Ø The process used by OSHA is backwards. Instead of focusing on health complaints, the OSHA industrial hygienist looks at exposure numbers. For workers, this adds insult to injury.
Ø OSHA sampling only evaluates how much of a chemical enters the body by being breathed in. But many chemicals also are absorbed through the skin or accidentally eaten due to contaminated lunchrooms.
Ø OSHA most often measures only for one or two chemicals, rather than for all those to which workers are exposed.
Ø OSHA does not consider the combined effects of chemicals and other hazards such as heat and noise.
Ø OSHA usually collects air samples for only one day and may easily miss peak exposures occurring during maintenance, leaks, and emergencies, especially if they occur after first shift.
Ø Variations due to season or production schedules also may be missed.
Ø During the OSHA inspection, the employer may slow down production or change the chemicals or procedures used to try to hide bad conditions.
CHOOSING WHEN TO FILE OSHA HEALTH COMPLAINTS
Before filing an OSHA health complaint you should be fairly sure that there are violations of OSHA standards in your workplace. Otherwise, there is a good chance that the problems you are concerned about will not be cited by OSHA, giving the impression that everything is fine.
There are several chemical-related OSHA health standards that apply to all workplaces and that are widely violated. These include 1910.1200 - Hazard Communication, 1910.1020 - Access to Med-ical and Monitoring Data, and 1904 - Recording and Reporting Illnesses. Whenever you file a complaint, these should be mentioned if you have reason to believe the employer is out of compliance.
The OSHA noise standard, 1910.95, is also widely violated and may be something you will have success with in an OSHA complaint.
When the problem you face is reducing exposure to chemicals, however, you come right up against the problem of PELs that are too high to protect workers from health effects. There are only a few chemicals for which OSHA has even a small chance of finding overexposures when it collects air samples. These are listed in Appendix 4. There are no solvents on this list; OSHA has virtually no chance of finding solvent exposures above the solvent PELs because they are hundreds of times too high to protect health.
There is another group of chemicals that has comprehensive OSHA standards. These are listed in Appendix 2. Comprehensive standards specify a whole range of requirements for air monitoring, personal protective equipment, engineering controls and work practices, medical monitoring and employee education and training. Most of these requirements go into effect only when the PEL or half of the PEL (the "action level") is exceeded but some provisions apply even when exposure limits are not exceeded. The PELs in comprehensive standards are, on the whole, much more protective than PELs in the OSHA Z tables. So if you have a problem with one of the chemicals with a comprehensive standard, an OSHA inspection may be helpful.
If employees are required to wear personal protective equipment such as respirators or eye or face protection, check to see if the provisions of 1910.132, 1910.133, 1910.134, 1910.136, and 1910.138 are being followed. General requirements for all personal protective equipment are contained in 1910.132.
Some helpful provi-sions of the other chemical-related standards are given in Appendix 2. The full text of these standards should be consulted to see if the employer is violating any pro-visions. These are available at www.osha.gov.
WRITING YOUR OWN RULES FOR THE CORPORATE NUMBERS GAME
Because corporate industrial hygiene monitoring is most often used against workers, it should be approached with extreme caution. The union must do its best to assure that monitoring will benefit workers and not undermine their demands to clean up the workplace. The union should take full advantage of its legal right to bargain over health and safety that is provided by the National Labor Relations Act.
Certainly there is little need for corporate exposure monitoring with carcinogens, mutagens or teratogens since the position of labor and many health professionals is that there is no "safe" level for these. Instead, insist that the emphasis be put on reducing exposures to such chemicals to the lowest possible level.
In deciding whether sampling may be justified, the union should determine whether the following circumstances exist.
Ø The employer plans to install engineering controls and wishes to compare exposures before and after controls. This is a legitimate purpose and usually can be accomplished using area samples or direct reading instru-ments, rather than personal samples worn by workers.
The union will want to seriously consider whether it will support sampling for the last two purposes. These are in the realm of research and may not ever actually benefit workers. Sampling to decide where controls are needed is much more legitimate and likely to result in immediate improvement of working conditions.
In all cases, it is important to assure that the following conditions are met:
Ø All of the chemical exposures in question' are identified and will be sampled.
Ø The union will observe monitoring and can assure that sampling will take place during the worst exposures.
Ø The employer agrees that exposure data will be given in full to the union and applicable parts to all work-ers who have been sampled or have similar exposures, with a copy to these workers' permanent personnel files.
Ø The employer commits in writing to make the data available to public health professionals acceptable to the union who wish to use it for epidemiology or other research purposes.
Ø Exposure limits that are protective of health will be used to evaluate the samples. Unions and workers will get more protection if they use health guidelines based on an excellent EPA database rather than OSHA or other exposure limits. A list of these EPA-based guidelines appears in a booklet entitled "Health-Based Exposure Limits and Lowest National Exposure Limits", published by the Santa Clara Center for Occupational Safety and Health (SCCOSH), 760 N. 1st Street, 2nd Floor, San Jose, CA 95112, 408-998-4050, 408-998-4051 (Fax), firstname.lastname@example.org. The 1995 edition is online at dmi-www.mc.duke.edu/oem/chem-exp.htm.
If the above outcomes and conditions cannot be assured, the union should devise a strategy to change the situation. The following may assist union attempts to negotiate an acceptable agreement with management:
Ø Advising management that the union will label all sampling results as fraudulent and will give no credibility to them.
Ø Advising management that the union will boycott the sampling by advising workers not to wear sampling devices.
Ø Other actions designed to motivate management to re-negotiate.
Obviously, the union must be confident of its ability to protect workers from discipline if some of these actions are actually carried out. The union should also bear in mind that some workers might decide on their own to contaminate, destroy or otherwise sabotage samples. This is likely to happen especially where workers have had past experiences where sampling resulted in no improvements in the workplace. Such sabotage may arise out of curiosity about how bad things have to be before management acts and frustration that poor working conditions are not recognized as needing improvement. Such workers may need union guidance and protection.
USEFUL ACTIONS FOR THE INDUSTRIAL HYGIENIST
Have the industrial hygienist spend time looking at the work as it is carried out, evaluating controls, and talking with workers to find out when they experience irritation, smell odors, see dust; in this way, the worst exposure periods can be pinpointed. Appendix 1 contains a checklist for evaluating the potential for chemical exposure by each route of entry.
The industrial hygienist should note all potential exposures to chemicals, noise, radiation, heat, cold, vibra-tion, repetitive trauma, bacteria, viruses and other biological hazards. In order to document that exposure is taking place, it is helpful to have photographs or videotape showing skin contact or visible contaminants.
The hygienist can collect bulk or wipe samples for analysis when there is no other way (such as a Material Safety Data Sheet) to find out if a substance is present. These types of samples are useful if you can use a "yes" or "no" answer to act. Bulk samples often are taken of materials suspected to be asbestos. Wipe samples of surfaces such as lunch tables may be useful where contamination by chemicals that are toxic when ingested, such as lead, is suspected.
Have the industrial hygienist and/or the union interview workers in private concerning any health problems, symptoms or complaints they may have. Results of such interviews must be confidential. Any reports should reveal only the employees' job title, not names. A simple survey form for this purpose is provided in Appendix 6.
DEMAND A GOOD REPORT
Unions and workers should insist that the industrial hygienist write a report and that they get a copy of it. Unions and workers are entitled to all reports under OSHA Regulation 1910.1020. The report should state clear-ly the limitations of their investigations. For exam-ple such a statement could read as follows: "The findings and exposure data reported here are accurate only for the workplace condi-tions existing at the time of the evaluation. Not all potential occupa-tional health problems or exposures were eval-uated. Inadequate infor-mation is available concerning what exposures to most hazards are safe for workers."
Unions and workers also should insist that the report fully describe the conditions that the industrial hygienist observed in the workplace. This in itself will go a long way towards combating management's claims that all is well and good.
Most importantly, the report should list all of the possible improvements that could be made in the workplace. The union can decide which ones it wants the most. Changes in the work environment should be stressed over personal protective equipment.
A listing of standard industrial hygiene recom-mendations is provided in Appendix 3.
If NIOSH has published control technology recom-mendations for specific operations, these should be highlighted in the report. Some industries and operations for which control technology reports have been published are identified in Appendix 5.
Non-technical recommendations should be included, such as increased health and safety staffing and training among management personnel and better worker train-ing. If the union thinks it will be beneficial, a recommen-dation for a joint union-management health and safety committee can be made.
DOING YOUR OWN INDUSTRIAL HYGIENE
As we have seen, industrial hygiene often has misplaced an emphasis on technical sampling methods rather than good investigations into health hazards and innovative problem solving. The more we realize that the best industrial hygiene is problem-solving, the more accessible it is for union health and safety representatives and activists. Here is a review of the traditional concepts of industrial hygiene and how a labor union might approach them.
Hazard Recognition: The best way to recog-nize potential health hazards is to know work operations and the asso-ciated hazards in the particular workplace. Inspections that utilize visual observations of the workplace for those hazards and talking to the "experts" (workers) are the best ways to learn the hazards.
Hazard Evaluation. This currently is done by sampling. Instead, evaluation can be performed by observing visible contaminants, noting odors, predicting exposure from situations such as open containers or spraying operations, or from interviewing workers about their health symptoms and complaints.
Controlling Hazards. This requires problem-solving techniques, coupled with solutions. Some solutions, such as designing a ventilation system, require a certain amount of technical expertise, while others require job expertise to recognize ways to change work organization and work practices. All solutions need to be trial-tested and modified until they are workable. A
1991: Peter Dooley contributed wonderful encouragement, many helpful reviews and clarifying discussions. Thoughtful reviews of earlier drafts were done by Buck Cameron, Debbie Nagin, Thurman Wenzl, Richard Youngstrom, and Grace Ziem. Barry Castleman and Grace Ziem conducted the original expose of exposure limits that laid the foundation for the ideas in this article.
2003: Peter Montague brought my attention to the Precautionary Principle and it's similarity to my work; he also encouraged me to arrange to have this article more widely distributed. I appreciate permission from Chuck Levenstein, Editor of New Solutions (www.uml.edu/Dept/WE/research/publictn/newsoln.htm), to place this article on the Internet and the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (www.nycosh.org), the New Jersey Work Environment Council (www.njwec.org), and the National COSH Network (www.coshnetwork.org/) for posting this article on their web sites.
CHECKLIST FOR EVALUATING CHEMICAL EXPOSURE