In his comments on the recent publication of the final rule modernizing the Hazard Communication Standard (HCS), Dr. David Michaels, head of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA),  said that workers not only have a “right to know” the chemical hazards confronting them in the workplace, but with the changes to HCS, now have the ability to understand these hazards and how to address them.  If a worker’s “right to understand” hazards is paramount, then why hasn’t OSHA taken similar steps to update its regulations for facility and workplace safety signs?

OSHA regulations currently reference standards for safety signs that were published in 1967 and 1968, and even those were based on sign design parameters defined in 1941! Clearly, a lot has changed in U.S. workplaces in the 45 years since these standards have been written.  A wide range of U.S. industries use sophisticated equipment and technology in their processes and building control systems. New technologies have spawned entire new industries that have multifaceted potential hazards that could not have been imagined decades ago. As a result, safety signs associated with more complex workplaces must attempt to communicate critical—and often more detailed—safety messages to an increasingly multi-cultural workforce.

OSHA has an opportunity to bring its regulations into the 21st century simply by updating its existing regulations to reference the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) Z535 series of standards for safety signs. The 2011 versions of these standards define the state-of-the-art when there is a legal question as to the adequacy of a warning. They better define content for signs, offer improved sign formats, and differentiate between varying degrees of risk/hazard severity, resulting in consistency and leading to improved comprehension.

It seems a simple task – updating regulations to replace an outdated reference with a current one. But it is not. NEMA has been working with OSHA for several years to get them to update their standards, even doing most of the legwork (creating a side-by-side comparison of OSHA’s regulations with the new standards, providing documentation of the new standards’ superiority, ensuring OSHA has copies of the new standards, etc.) for them. So why hasn’t OSHA moved?

The answer is that OSHA is mired in a cumbersome, outdated regulatory process that results in too much delay, too much litigation, and too much red tape. OSHA has taken no issue on the merits with NEMA’s position that it needs to update the references or that the Z535 standards provide enhanced communication of workplace safety hazards; in fact, they generally agree that improved hazard communication has the potential to  enhance worker safety. But they have a process to follow, one that involves many steps and many people, and they are hard-pressed to get anything done in a timely manner.

This example is just one – OSHA regulations reference dozens of outdated consensus standards, as do the regulations of other federal agencies. It is encouraging that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is paying closer attention to the nexus between the federal government and voluntary consensus standards. Perhaps between President Obama’s Executive Order to improve and streamline regulatory processes and the OMB’s review of Circular A-119, the existing regulatory system in which federal agencies operate could be fixed.

After all, the right thing to do is the right thing to do. A streamlined regulatory system would give federal agencies like OSHA the opportunity to act based on the merits of a proposal, rather than using a broken system as an excuse for failing to act.


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