Who knows what direction OSHA takes after the presidential elections? But whoever replaces the longest-serving OSHA boss, Dr. David Michaels – be he or she Republican or Democrat – the new chief will only have the time and resources to focus on two or three priorities they want to accomplish.

Meanwhile, down in the bowels of OSHA, career standards-setting employees go about their work with a “this too shall pass” political philosophy honed over years of seeing various OSHA regimes come and go. These careerists are dedicated to specific standards projects that often take years and years to bubble to the surface. But you should know some of the standards issues on the agency’s long-range radar. Depending on priorities in OSHA’s front office, some of these long-term action items as listed on the latest semi-annual regulatory calendar could suddenly become hot.

Bloodborne Pathogens

OSHA will undertake a review of the Bloodborne Pathogen Standard (29 CFR 1910.1030) in accordance with the requirements of the Regulatory Flexibility Act and section 5 of Executive Order 12866. The review will consider the continued need for the rule; whether the rule overlaps, duplicates, or conflicts with other Federal, State or local regulations; and the degree to which technology, economic conditions, or other factors may
have changed since the rule was evaluated.         

Combustible Dust 

OSHA has initiated rulemaking to develop a combustible dust standard for general industry. OSHA will use information gathered, including from an upcoming small business panel, to develop a comprehensive standard that addresses combustible dust hazards.                      

Chemical Management and Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs) 

The majority of the OSHA Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs) were adopted in 1971, under section 6(a) of the OSH Act and only a few have been successfully updated since that time. There is widespread agreement among industry, labor, and professional occupational safety and health organizations that OSHA’s PELs are outdated and need revising in order to take into account newer scientific data that indicates that significant occupational health risks exist at levels below OSHA’s current PELs. In 1989, OSHA issued a final standard that lowered PELs for more than 200 chemicals and added PELs for 164. But the final rule was challenged and ultimately vacated by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in 1991, citing deficiencies in OSHA’s analyses. Since that time OSHA has made attempts to examine its outdated PELs in light of the court’s 1991 decision. On October 10, 2014, OSHA published a Request for Information (RFI) to solicit comment from the public on approaches the agency may take to reduce the risk of developing illness caused by exposure to hazardous chemicals. This RFI does not address Process Safety Management issues being addressed under the Executive Order, but rather lower, longer-term exposures.

Process Safety Management and Prevention of Major Chemical Accidents 

In accordance with the Executive Order 13650, Improving Chemical Facility Safety and Security, OSHA issued a Request for Information (RFI) on December 9, 2013 (78 FR 73756). The RFI anticipates to identify issues related to modernization of the Process Safety Management standard and related standards necessary to meet the goal of preventing major chemical accidents.

Communication Tower Safety 

While the number of employees engaged in the communication tower industry remains small, the fatality rate is very high. During the past 20 years, this industry has experienced an average fatality rate that greatly exceeds that of the construction industry, for example. Falls are the leading cause of death in tower work and OSHA has evidence that fall protection is used either improperly or inconsistently. Employees are often hoisted to working levels on small base-mounted drum hoists that have been mounted to a truck chassis, and these may not be rated to hoist personnel. Communication tower construction and maintenance activities are not adequately covered by current OSHA fall protection and personnel hoisting standards, and OSHA plans to revise the standard. Revisions would clarify the safety responsibilities regarding tower work, structural considerations and radio frequency hazards. It would also consider incorporating the new industry consensus standards for construction or maintenance of communication towers.

Emergency Response and Preparedness 

OSHA currently regulates aspects of emergency response and preparedness. Some of these standards were promulgated decades ago, and none were designed as comprehensive emergency response standards. Consequently, they do not address the full range of hazards or concerns currently facing emergency responders, nor do they reflect major changes in performance specifications for protective clothing and equipment. The agency acknowledged that current OSHA standards also do not reflect all the major developments in safety and health practices that have already been accepted by the emergency response community and incorporated into industry consensus standards. OSHA plans to update these standards with information gathered through an RFI and public meetings. After the tragedy that struck West, Texas, in April 2013, it was reaffirmed that emergency responder health and safety continues to be an area of ongoing need. President Obama issued Executive Order 13650 Improving Chemical Facility Safety and Security (EO) on August 1, 2013, to improve chemical facility safety and security, including emergency responder safety.

Lockout/Tagout Update 

Recent technological advancements that employ computer-based controls of hazardous energy (e.g., mechanical, electrical, pneumatic, chemical, radiation) conflict with OSHA’s existing lockout/tagout standard.  The use of these computer-based controls has become more prevalent as equipment manufacturers modernize their designs. Additionally, there are international standards harmonization concerns since this method of lockout/tagout is more accepted in other nations. The agency has recently seen an increase in requests for variances for these devices. An RFI would be useful in understanding the strengths and limitations of this new technology, as well as potential hazards to workers. Alternatively, the agency may hold a stakeholder meeting and open a public docket to explore the issue.

Tree Care Standard 

There is no OSHA standard for tree care operations; the agency currently applies a patchwork of standards to address the serious hazards in this industry. The tree care industry previously petitioned the agency for rulemaking and OSHA issued an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (September 2008); but the rulemaking was later removed from the regulatory agenda due to insufficient resources. Tree care continues to be a high-hazard industry.  Stakeholder meetings will allow the agency to update the record and proceed to a future rulemaking.

Noise in Construction 

Two recent studies of occupational hearing loss conducted by Department of Energy and NIOSH concluded that a significant percentage of construction workers have suffered from hearing loss over the duration of their careers. It has been noted that construction work is excluded from the OSHA Hearing Conservation Amendment that is required for general industry work. Also, existing construction noise requirements lack the specificity of a general hearing conservation program that must be implemented for general industry work. Discussions within the industry and new information, such as the two referenced hearing loss studies, have prompted OSHA to consider that it may be necessary to revisit whether requirements are effective for protecting construction workers from noise hazards. A Request for Information will solicit public comments and information about the effectiveness and feasibility of adopting more protective noise-hazard requirements, for example, such as those similar to the ANSI Standard A10.46 -- Hearing Loss Prevention in Construction and Demolition Workers.

Preventing Workplace Violence in Healthcare 

The Request For Information (RFI) tentatively set to be released in November, 2016, will cover OSHA’s history with the issue of workplace violence in healthcare, including a discussion of the guidelines that were initially published in 1996, a 2014 update to the guidelines, and the recently published tools and strategies that were shared with OSHA by healthcare facilities with effective violence prevention programs. It will also discuss the agency’s use of the general duty clause in enforcement cases in health care. The RFI solicits information primarily from health care employers, workers and other subject matter experts on impacts of violence, prevention strategies, and other information that will be useful to the agency if it decides to move forward in rulemaking. OSHA will also solicit information from stakeholders, including state officials, employers and workers, in the nine states that require certain health care facilities to have some type of workplace violence prevention program.

Occupational Exposure to Beryllium 

In 1999 and 2001, OSHA was petitioned to issue an emergency temporary standard for the permissible exposure limit (PEL) to beryllium by the United Steel Workers (formerly the Paper Allied-Industrial, Chemical, and Energy Workers Union), Public Citizen Health Research Group, and others. The agency denied the petitions but stated its intent to begin data gathering to collect needed information on beryllium’s toxicity, risks, and patterns of usage. On November 26, 2002, OSHA published a Request for Information (RFI) (67 FR 70707) to solicit information pertinent to occupational exposure to beryllium, including: current exposures to beryllium; the relationship between exposure to beryllium and the development of adverse health effects; exposure assessment and monitoring methods; exposure control methods; and medical surveillance. In addition, the agency conducted field surveys of selected worksites to assess current exposures and control methods being used to reduce employee exposures to beryllium. OSHA convened a Small Business Advocacy Review Panel under the Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act (SBREFA) and completed the SBREFA Report in January 2008. OSHA also completed a scientific peer review of its draft risk assessment. A notice of proposed rulemaking was issued in August, 2015. The next step: analyzing comments from a public hearing on the proposal held earlier this year.

Infectious Diseases 

Employees in health care and other high-risk environments face long-standing infectious disease hazards such as tuberculosis (TB), varicella disease (chickenpox, shingles), and measles (rubeola), as well as new and emerging infectious disease threats, such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and pandemic influenza. Health care workers and workers in related occupations, or who are exposed in other high-risk environments, are at increased risk of contracting TB, SARS, Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA), and other infectious diseases that can be transmitted through a variety of exposure routes. OSHA is concerned about the ability of employees to continue to provide health care and other critical services without unreasonably jeopardizing their health. OSHA is developing a standard to ensure that employers establish a comprehensive infection control program and control measures to protect employees from infectious disease exposures to pathogens that can cause significant disease. Workplaces where such control measures might be necessary include: health care, emergency response, correctional facilities, homeless shelters, drug treatment programs, and other occupational settings where employees can be at increased risk of exposure to potentially infectious people. A standard could also apply to laboratories which handle materials that may be a source of pathogens, and to pathologists, coroners’ offices, medical examiners, and mortuaries. A notice of proposed rulemaking is tentatively scheduled for February, 2017.

Walking Working Surfaces and Personal Fall Protection Systems (Slips, Trips, and Fall Prevention) 

This standard-setting effort dates back more than a quarter century. In 1990, OSHA published a proposed rule (55 FR 13360) addressing slip, trip, and fall hazards and establishing requirements for personal fall protection systems. Slips, trips, and falls are among the leading causes of work-related injuries and fatalities. Since that time, new technologies and procedures have become available to protect employees from these hazards. The agency has been working to update these rules to reflect current technology. As a result of issues raised in comments to the 1990 proposed rulemaking, OSHA published a notice to reopen the rulemaking for comment on May 2, 2003. Based on comments received on the 2003 notice, OSHA determined that the rule proposed in 1990 was out of date and did not reflect current industry practice or technology. The agency published a second proposed rule on May 24, 2010, which reflected current information and increased consistency with other OSHA standards. Hearings were held on January 18 through 21, 2011. There’s a chance this could be the last rule finalized by the current OSHA administration under President Obama. The final standard could see the light of day before the Obama administration leaves Washington January 20, 2017.