Like other federal agencies under the Bush administration, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has abandoned its traditional role of setting and enforcing regulations in favor of industry partnerships and voluntary programs.
OSHA’s complete failure to do its job became painfully apparent earlier this week, when the House of Representatives voted 260 to 154 to require the agency to respond to a serious workplace hazard that was first brought to its attention seven years ago.
In May of 2000, an official from the Missouri Department of Health notified OSHA that ten workers from a microwave popcorn manufacturing plant had been diagnosed with the rare lung disease bronchiolitis obliterans -- a form of severe obstructive lung disease that, as the name suggests, ruins victims’ lungs. An OSHA inspector made a less-than-thorough visit to the plant in question and declined to follow up further.
By contrast, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health investigated the Missouri plant and made recommendations about controlling workers’ exposure to airborne substances. NIOSH staff conducted research in other popcorn plants and identified the artificial butter flavoring chemical diacetyl as a likely cause of respiratory symptoms that many workers were experiencing. Further animal and epidemiologic studies confirmed the associated between diacetyl and severe obstructive lung disease.
More cases were diagnosed among popcorn workers, and then in workers from the facilities where flavorings are manufactured. NIOSH made recommendations about controlling occupational diacetyl exposure, and the industry group Flavor and Extract Manufacturers’ Association began educating its members about diacetyl’s hazards and how to minimize them. Meanwhile OSHA evidently didn’t think that the situation merited the use of its ability to issue a regulation.
In July of 2006, the United Food and Commercial Workers union and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters petitioned OSHA for an emergency temporary standardto protect workers from diacetyl, and 42 of the nation’s leading occupational health experts sent a letter supporting the petition. Aside from a letter stating that "OSHA is evaluating your petition," the agency remained remarkably quiet with regards to diacetyl – until Congress and the New York Times took an interest in the issue.
OSHA’s failures on the front page
On April 25, 2007, the front page of the New York Times featured an article entitled "OSHA Leaves Worker Safety in the Hands of Industry" by Stephen Labaton. The photo that accompanied it was from the previous day’s hearing in the House of Representatives (held by the House Committee on Education and Labor Subcommittee on Workforce Protections), and it showed OSHA Assistant Secretary Edwin Foulke at the witness table next to a man wearing an oxygen tube. That man was Eric Peoples, a 35-year-old former microwave popcorn worker. He explained his case to a packed hearing room:
I have a 24% lung capacity. I am currently on the inactive Lung Transplant registry. One case of pneumonia could cause me to need the transplant now. The average rate of survival for someone with a lung transplant is about five years. 75% of lung transplant patients are dead after 10 years.
One of the doctors who worked on the first case involving the two workers with bronchiolitis obliterans in 1990 said that the flavoring industry was using workers as "blue collar guinea pigs."
I played by the rules. I worked to support my family. This unregulated industry virtually destroyed my life. Don’t let it destroy the lives of others. These chemicals that are used on food in large scale production must be tested and proper instructions and labeling supplied with their sale.
Labaton’s article focused largely on OSHA’s failure to address diacetyl problem, and noted other hazards that the agency was supposed to be addressing but wasn’t. He made it clear that under the Bush administration, OSHA had shifted its emphasis from enforcement to voluntary compliance. A scathing NYT editorial entitled "Crippling government from within" described Foulke as "one of the most zealous antiregulatory ideologues."
The day after the article appeared, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions held its own hearing, entitled "Is OSHA Working for Working People?"From Senator Murray’s opening remarks and the witness testimony, it was clear that the answer was no.
With this much attention being paid to its inactivity, OSHA evidently decided it was time to make a show of being on top of the diacetyl problem. On the day of the House hearing, it announced that it was launching a National Emphasis Program for microwave popcorn facilities. The program fell far short of the needed action – it contained no standards workplaces will be required to meet, and focused only on popcorn facilities rather than the range of food and flavoring plants where diacetyl is used – but at least it showed that OSHA no longer felt able to ignore the problem completely.
OSHA responds to the threat of legislation
Shortly after the hearings, Representative Lynn Woolsey introduced legislation requiring OSHA to set an emergency temporary standard for diacetyl exposure within six months, and a final standard within two years. The House Education and Labor Committee approved the bill in June, but of course the House as a whole has had other pressing matters to address.
The pressure on OSHA might have faded – which was probably what the agency was hoping for – but an unexpected event put the spotlight back on popcorn. A Colorado furniture salesman visited a pulmonary specialist about lung problems, and the doctor, Dr. Cecile Rose of the National Jewish Medical and Research Center, happened to be one of the few in the country who’d been seeing workers with bronchiolitis obliterans. Several tests showed his disease to be similar to that of diacetyl-exposed workers, but he had never worked with diacetyl. Finally, Dr. Rose asked the man if he ate a lot of microwave popcorn. The patient was surprised – how did the doctor know about his twice-daily buttery snack?
When diacetyl measurements taken at the man’s house showed that his exposures were similar to that of some popcorn workers who’d developed bronchiolitis obliterans. She contacted OSHA and several other agencies. She got some acknowledgement that her letter had been received, but no one even asked her for more information. Diacetyl-related lung damage was still not a priority for federal regulatory agencies, even now that it appeared that some consumers might be affected.
Dr. Rose sent her letter in July. In early September, Dr. David Michaels – an epidemiologist and one of the health advocates pressing OSHA to act on diacetyl – posted a copy of it at the public health blog The Pump Handle and described the lack of response that Dr. Rose had received. Within hours, the internet and airwaves were abuzz over the potential threat to popcorn consumers. Within days, major microwave popcorn manufacturers announced that they would be removing diacetyl from their popcorn. (One, Pop Weaver, had made that announcement a few days earlier, and its diacetyl-free products are now in stores.)
This was the backdrop as the House prepared to vote on the diacetyl legislation. Two days before the vote, OSHA issued a press release about the action it was taking to address diacetyl. The first item on the list was "Initiating rulemaking," but there was no Federal Register notice to indicate such an action. Instead, OSHA issued an invitation to a stakeholder meeting on diacetyl, which was described as "a continuation of OSHA’s information collection efforts on Diacetyl." Right on cue, the White House and the OSHA Fairness Coalition (which includes members like the International Food Distributors Association, National Association of Manufacturers, and U.S. Chamber of Commerce) wrote to House members and stated their opposition to the legislation, saying that OSHA’s recent actions on diacetyl made the legislation unnecessary.
Two hundred sixty members of the House knew better than to buy that argument, and passed the Popcorn Workers Lung Disease Prevention Act on September 26th.
There’s a lot more to this story, and you can find the complete saga at The Pump Handle. (Disclosure: I’m affiliated with this blog.) FDA and EPA could also be doing more to address the diacetyl issue – but their failures pale in comparison beside OSHA’s.
The fate of the legislation is still uncertain – the Senate has yet to introduce a similar bill, and Bush has already registered his opposition to it. Whatever happens, the House has made it clear that OSHA’s failure to do its job has become so dire as to require Congressional intervention. Let’s hope the next president can help the agency earn back its former reputation as a powerful force for workers’ health and safety.
cross-posted from unbossed