Speeding up OSHA’s response to COVID-19 whistleblower complaints: DOL OIG makes recommendations

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Washington — Facing a staffing shortage and an increased number of complaints related to the COVID-19 pandemic, OSHA must improve the efficiency of its Whistleblower Protection Program, an audit report from the Department of Labor Office of Inspector General concludes.

The program enforces 23 statutes that prohibit employers from retaliating against workers who report employer violations of various workplace safety, consumer product, environmental, financial reform and securities laws.

“When OSHA fails to respond in a timely manner, it could leave workers to suffer emotionally and financially, and may also lead to the erosion of key evidence and witnesses,” DOL OIG states in the Aug. 14 report.

An audit conducted by OIG found whistleblower complaints increased 30% during the first four months of the pandemic compared with the same period last year. Meanwhile, the WPP’s number of full-time equivalent investigators dropped to 120 from 126 in 2019. As a result, some investigators have as many as 45 open cases – more than double the “optimal” maximum amount of 20, according to the report. OIG recommends OSHA fill these vacancies.

The office also recommends the agency continue to assess a triage pilot intended to speed up the complaint screening process and consider extending the program to all regions. The program, set up before the pandemic in Region 2 (New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands), is designed to reassign older whistleblower complaints from regions with sizeable backlogs to regions with smaller backlogs.

“Whistleblower program officials have not utilized a similar approach during the pandemic to more evenly distribute whistleblower complaints,” the report states. OIG recommends the agency develop a caseload management plan to be able do so.

In general, whistleblower cases are assigned based on the whistleblower’s location or where the majority of witnesses appeared to be located. However, OIG points out, many investigations are conducted via telephone interviews and with electronic delivery of supporting documentation, making distributing caseloads easier.

Acting OSHA administrator Loren Sweatt agreed with the recommendations in a response memo dated Aug. 10 and addressed to Assistant Inspector General for Audit Elliot Lewis. She wrote that the agency has processed more than half of the COVID-19-related complaints received to date, with an average screening time of 10 days – faster than the agency’s fiscal year 2020 Operating Plan’s performance measure of 13 days.

Sweatt added that the “Whistleblower Investigations Manual” is close to its first published update since September 2011.

“In the meantime, the agency continues to issue new guidance to investigative staff, strengthen our collaborative relationships with our partner agencies, and develop new customer service and outreach tools,” she wrote.


McCraren Compliance assists employers in protecting their workers, starting with a comprehensive Work-site Analysis, Hazard Prevention, Controls, and Safety & Health Training.

How healthy is your home workstation? Researchers identify key ergo issues

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Cincinnati — Millions of people working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic may be sitting at improperly arranged workstations that increase their risk of eye, head, neck, back, shoulder, wrist and forearm stress and strain injuries, according to the results of a recent survey conducted by University of Cincinnati researchers.

The researchers conducted an ergonomic assessment of 843 university faculty and staff members’ home workstations via an email survey. In addition, 41 employees submitted photos of their workstations for review. Identified as the top ergonomic issues concerning chairs were lack of lumbar support (73%), back support not being used (69%), seat was too hard (63%), and seat was too low or too high (43%).

Sitting in a chair that is the wrong height can result in elevated arms, leaning on the front edge of a desk and poor head position, the researchers noted. They added that back supports and softer seats help assist with proper posture, while not using armrests adds stress to the forearms and upper back.

Other ergonomics issues identified included poor lighting; work surfaces that had hard, sharp edges; and monitors positioned too high, too low or off to the side.

Among the biggest takeaways for Kermit Davis, lead study author and associate professor in the UC College of Medicine, is that those working at home should take a break about every 30 minutes to minimize the risk of injury.

“The body doesn’t like static postures continually,” Davis said in a July 28 press release. “You don’t want to do all sitting or all standing all the time. You want to alter your position and change it up throughout the day.”

Other recommendations:

  • Place a pillow on your seat if you need more height.
  • Use a rolled-up pillow or towel behind your back to provide lumbar/back support.
  • Move your chair closer to the desk or table to ensure your back is against the back of the chair.
  • Use books or a box to raise a laptop monitor to eye level.
  • Standing workstations should include a monitor at eye level, keyboard placed so your forearms are parallel to the ground, and a soft or rounded front edge to the working surface.

The study was published online July 3 in the journal Ergonomics in Design.

It’s Brake Safety Week

Today is the start of Brake Safety Week, which is Aug. 23-29. Throughout the week, law enforcement personnel will conduct roadside safety inspections to identify commercial motor vehicles with brake violations. Vehicles discovered to have critical brake violations, or other critical vehicle inspection item conditions, as outlined in the North American Standard Out-of-Service Criteria, will be removed from roadways until those violations are corrected.

Inspectors will also pay special attention to brake hoses/tubing, which must be properly attached, undamaged, without leaks and provide adequate flexibility. Brake hoses/tubing are an essential component of the braking system. If they fail, braking capability may be seriously compromised.

Brake Safety Week is part of the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance’s (CVSA) Operation Airbrake Program, a vehicle safety initiative focused on the inspection and identification of commercial motor vehicles with brake violations. Although inspection of a vehicle’s brake system and its components is always part of the roadside inspection process, Brake Safety Week aims to highlight the importance of brake systems and proper brake maintenance, operation and performance.

During Brake Safety Week, inspectors will perform the same roadside inspections conducted on any other day of the year. However, in addition, inspectors will be collecting brake-related statistics, and at the conclusion of the week, that data will be submitted to CVSA for compilation and analysis. The results will be released later in the year and will include the out-of-service rates for the week, along with data on brake hoses/tubing. Gathering, analyzing and releasing such data helps jurisdictions appropriately allocate resources, and it reminds motor carriers of the importance of proactive vehicle maintenance. Last year, 13.5% of vehicles inspected during Brake Safety Week were removed from roadways for critical brake-related violations.

According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s (FMCSA) latest “Large Truck and Bus Crash Facts” report, of the recorded vehicle-related causes for fatal crashes in 2017, brake systems was cited as the third most frequent vehicle-related cause, after other vehicles and tires.

CVSA created Brake Safety Week to reduce the number of crashes involving commercial motor vehicles with brake system deficiencies by conducting roadside mechanical fitness inspections and removing commercial motor vehicles with dangerous brake conditions from our roadways. Brake Safety Week is supported by CVSA member jurisdictionsFMCSA and the Canadian Council of Motor Transport Administrators.

 


McCraren Compliance can help you understand and comply with FMCSA, DOT and ADOT and ensure your drivers and your vehicles operate safely and efficiently.

Jim Mullen to exit as acting head of FMCSA

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Photo: Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration

Washington — Jim Mullen will step down as acting administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration at the end of August, a Department of Transportation spokesperson confirmed Aug. 17.

The former chief counsel for the agency, Mullen assumed the role of acting administrator in October after Raymond Martinez resigned from his post as FMCSA administrator after almost two years. He now oversees construction of DOT’s redeveloping John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center in Cambridge, MA.

“At the end of the month, Jim Mullen will be leaving the department,” a DOT spokesperson told Safety+Health. “We greatly appreciate Jim’s service and the work he has done for our country.”

The spokesperson confirmed that former FMCSA Director of Government Affairs Wiley Deck, now a senior policy advisor to Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, will succeed Mullen as deputy administrator.

During Mullen’s tenure, FMCSA fully implemented its Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse and unveiled a highly anticipated final rule the agency claims will add flexibility to hours-of-service regulations for commercial truck drivers.


McCraren Compliance can help you understand and comply with FMCSA, DOT and ADOT and ensure your drivers and your vehicles operate safely and efficiently.

Call us Today at 888-758-4757 or email us at info@mccrarencompliance.com to schedule your free FMCSA Compliance Assessment

COVID-19 pandemic: OSHA releases guidelines for oil and gas industry

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Photo: OSHA

Washington — OSHA has published COVID-19-related guidance intended to help employers in the oil and gas industry reduce exposure among workers, including personnel in the sub industries and those whose tasks “make up the broader oil and gas industrial sector.”

The guidance includes a table with examples of tasks and associated risk levels, along with examples of engineering and administrative controls. Additionally, the agency addresses cloth facial coverings, safe work practices, personal protective equipment, and OSHA “flexibilities” on PPE requirements and prioritization during the pandemic.

Among the agency’s recommendations:

  • Defer work requiring close contact with others, if possible.
  • Configure communal work environments so workers are spaced at least 6 feet apart.
  • Stagger workers’ arrival, break and departure times.
  • Ensure adequate ventilation in work areas to help minimize potential exposure.
  • Encourage workers to wear face coverings to prevent the potential spread of the virus.

“Employers with workers engaged in the oil and gas industry should remain alert to changing conditions and implement infection prevention measures accordingly,” OSHA states.

MSHA – Mine Fatality #12

MINE FATALITY – On July 24, 2020, two miners were loading explosives from inside an aerial lift’s basket when the basket jolted upward into the mine roof, causing the death of one of the miners.

MSHA - Mine Fatality #12 - Safety Training and Consulting with McCraren Compliance.
Photo property of MSHA.gov
Best Practices:
  • Check all equipment before using it. Report all defects affecting safety to a responsible person for correction.
  • Service and maintain hydraulic systems according to the manufacturer’s specifications and schedules. Excessive pressure in a hydraulic circuit can drastically alter the control of booms, etc., creating serious hazards.
  • Instruct aerial lift users on hazard recognition and safe job procedures to avoid unsafe conditions.
  • Train lift operators in safe operating procedures listed in the operator’s manual.
  • Report equipment malfunctions and remove the equipment from service until repaired.
Additional Information:

This is the 12th fatality reported in 2020, and the third classified as “Machinery.”

 


McCraren Compliance offers many opportunities in safety training to help circumvent accidents. Please take a moment to visit our calendar of classes to see what we can do to help your safety measures from training to consulting.

Focus on individual workers rather than generational stereotypes, management experts say

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Washington — Instead of relying on generational labels such as “millennial” and “baby boomer” to help inform workforce management decisions – including those related to safety and communication – employers and managers should focus on workers’ individual situations and needs, concludes a recently published report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

A committee of experts in management, industrial and organizational psychology, sociology, economics, adult development and learning sciences, and other disciplines reviewed hundreds of sources of scientific literature on generations in the workforce, as well as work and human capital. They determined that although the term “generation” often identifies a group of people by their birth years, age range doesn’t mean each generation has a wide range of commonalities.

“Generational categories ignore significant differences that result from characteristics like gender, race/ethnicity, education, and occupation,” Nancy Tippins, chair of the committee and principal at The Nancy T. Tippins Group, told Safety+Health. “When an organization assumes generational categories are legitimate, they ignore the needs of individuals within the group. From a safety perspective, the danger in generational categories lies in treating everyone the same despite their different situations and needs.”

For example, an offshore oil rig worker using heavy equipment and an accountant in an office setting at the same company face much different safety challenges despite being born the same year. “Consequently, the training needed by each is likely going to be quite different for these two groups if it is to be effective and useful,” Tippins said.

When it comes to communicating safety messages, a process unique to the individual organization will likely be most effective, Tippins said. To start, identify the organization’s goals, the message to be shared and the needs/capabilities of workers to be trained. From there, the effectiveness of training should be monitored regularly and revisited based on each employee’s needs.

“Assuming everyone in a generational category has the same needs and expectations and disregarding differences and contextual factors will limit the effectiveness of training,” Tippins said.

Construction, agricultural workers at higher risk of knee osteoarthritis: study

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Sydney — Workers in the construction and agriculture industries face an increased risk of knee osteoarthritis, in part because of the rigorous physical demands of the job, results of a recent study led by researchers at the University of Sydney suggest.

The researchers analyzed 71 studies with more than 950,000 participants to examine relationships between on-the-job exposure, knee osteoarthritis and total knee replacement. Findings show that, compared with occupations that involve low levels of physical activity, agricultural workers are up to 64% more likely to develop knee osteoarthritis, while builders and floor layers are up to 63% more likely to be affected by the condition.

Workers in these sectors who routinely engage in “heavy lifting, frequent climbing, prolonged kneeling, squatting and standing” are especially vulnerable, the researchers noted. Also at increased odds: metal workers, miners, cleaners and service workers.

Noting that knee osteoarthritis is “the most common joint disorder worldwide,” Xia Wang, lead study author and musculoskeletal researcher at the university’s Royal North Shore Hospital, said in a July 8 press release that “tailored preventive strategies need to be implemented early on to adapt the aging workforces in many countries that push for longer employment trajectories.”

The study was published online July 7 in the journal Arthritis Care and Research.

Three Keys to Trenching and Excavation Safety

Trenching incidents are responsible for Backhoe digging a trenchapproximately 25 fatalities each year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. From underground utilities to potential cave-ins to being struck by objects, workers face a range of hazards in these environments.

“When we talk about trenching and excavation, soil is by far our biggest hazard, but any underground utility that we come in contact with, whether we find a gas line we were not aware of, or high-voltage electric that is buried underground, is a hazard. There are so many hazards that have to be accounted for and it’s constantly changing,” says Eric Voight, vice president and assistant director at Conner Strong & Buckelew and member of the ANSI/ASSP A10 Committee.

Proper planning, understanding and monitoring the work environment and training can help workers safely complete a trenching and excavation project. Before you begin your next trenching and excavation project, keep these three points in mind.

Understand the Job Site

The first step toward a safe trenching or excavation project is knowing the soil type(s) and hazards workers will encounter on the job site. This requires assessing the soil(s), identifying hazards present and determining the steps needed to protect workers from those hazards.

“Before you put any shovel into the ground, before you bring any excavator or heavy piece of equipment, you have to plan for all of the hazards that we could encounter, and that starts even before you get out on the site,” Voight explains. “You have to make sure that that you call 8-1-1, or whatever your number is in your locality, and have them come out and mark for any known hazards that could be in the area.”

In terms of classification, soils are divided into four types:

  • Type A: clay, silty clay, sandy clay and clay loam
  • Type B: angular gravel, silt, silt loam and soils that are fissured or near sources of vibration
  • Type C: granular soils in which particles don’t stick together and cohesive soils with a low unconfined compressive strength
  • Stable rock

Voight stresses the need to do multiple tests on soils, using techniques such as a visual test, a ribbon test or a dry strength test to determine the types of soil present. You may also use tools such as a torvane or a pocket penetrometer to assist in the analysis.

“You really have to get your hands dirty,” he says. “It’s not something that you can just step back and take a look and say ‘this looks like Type C soil.’” You actually have to put your hands into the dirt because it’s something you may have to justify how you came up with your determination.”

Throughout the planning process and with any soil evaluation and testing, it’s critical to partner with the competent person on the project to determine how job site hazards will be addressed and what will be the best solutions for providing a safe work environment.

“One of the biggest things you have to identify is who your competent person is going to be,” Voight says. “That competent person will be the one who will determine, based on the depth, width, soil type and work processes, which protective structure will be best for your workers.”

OSHA defines a competent person as “one who is capable of identifying existing and predictable hazards in the surroundings or working conditions which are unsanitary, hazardous or dangerous to employees, and who has authorization to take prompt corrective measures to eliminate them.”

Monitor the Work Environment

The conditions on a trenching and excavation site change constantly. Therefore, you have to continuously monitor the site to determine how those changes may affect worker safety. These could be weather-related factors, or issues related to the makeup of the job site changing over the course of a project.

“An evaluation must be done any time conditions change on the site,” Voight says. “Whether it’s an afternoon thunderstorm, or freezing and thawing, those are critical times because those conditions can create voids in the soil and drastically change how a trench is going to react.”

He adds that soil wants to fill back in due to the natural pressures of any voids that are created, so that must be taken into account when determining which protective measures are best-suited for a particular project.

“Once you understand that a hazard is always going to be there, then you can plan on different ways that you can go through and minimize those risks,” he says. “Whether it’s through a protective structure or some sort of sloping or benching, there are many options that you can choose. Choose the one that matches your task.”

In addition to a safety professional monitoring the conditions on the job site, workers must also continuously assess the conditions in a trench to make sure they stay safe throughout the work day.

“The best thing workers can do to protect themselves is make sure there is some barrier between themselves and the soil,” Voight explains. “Whether it is a trench box, a trench shield, timber shoring or removing soil to create an opening. If there is no soil that can entrap them, then there’s no soil that can bury them.”

Know the Numbers

Voight emphasizes that the standards developed around trenching and excavation such as the ANSI/ASSP A10.12 standard are data driven, and you need to know certain numbers to protect workers on the site.

Before you begin any trenching and excavation project, keep these numbers in mind, in accordance with the A10.12 standard:

  • Provide a means of access and egress in trenches that are 4 ft. or more in depth so as to require no more than 25 ft. of lateral travel for workers.
  • Keep spoil piles at least 2 ft. from the edge of a trench.
  • Trenches 5 ft. or more in depth require a protective structure.
  • Trenches 6 ft. or more in depth require fall protection.
  • Trenches greater than 20 ft. in depth require a professional engineer to review the protection of structures you have in place.

“We need to make sure that ultimately we’re keeping that soil away from entrapping our workers,” he says. “It takes time, it takes effort, but it’s the only way we’re going to prevent injuries and fatalities.”

Listen to our podcast with Eric Voight of the ANSI/ASSP A10 Committee to learn more about how you can protect workers during trenching and excavation projects.

OSHA COVID-19 Guidance Advises Wearing Masks in Workplace

As cases of COVID-19 continue to spike across the country and many jurisdictions have begun to require the use of face coverings in public, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has unveiled and updated its Frequently Asked Questions discussing masks in the workplace.
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According to OSHA wearing a surgical mask/face covering is safe for most people.

Medical masks, including surgical masks, are routinely worn by healthcare workers throughout the day as part of their personal protective equipment (PPE) ensembles and do not compromise their oxygen levels or cause carbon dioxide buildup. They are designed to be breathed through and can protect against respiratory droplets, which are typically much larger than tiny carbon dioxide particles. Consequently, most carbon dioxide particles will either go through the mask or escape along the mask’s loose-fitting perimeter. Some carbon dioxide might collect between the mask and the wearer’s face, but not at unsafe levels.

Like medical masks, cloth face coverings are loose-fitting with no seal and are designed to be breathed through. In addition, workers may easily remove their medical masks or cloth face coverings periodically (and when not in close proximity with others) to eliminate any negligible build-up of carbon dioxide that might occur. Cloth face coverings and medical masks can help prevent the spread of potentially infectious respiratory droplets from the wearer to their co-workers, including when the wearer has COVID-19 and does not know it.

However OSHA reminds us that surgical masks and cloth face coverings are not effective respiratory protection in the construction industry.

Employers must not use surgical masks or cloth face coverings when respirators are needed.

In general, employers should always rely on a hierarchy of controls that first includes efforts to eliminate or substitute out workplace hazards and then uses engineering controls (e.g., ventilation, wet methods), administrative controls (e.g., written procedures, modification of task duration), and safe work practices to prevent worker exposures to respiratory hazards, before relying on personal protective equipment, such as respirators. When respirators are needed, OSHA’s guidance describes enforcement discretion around use of respirators, including in situations in which it may be necessary to extend the use of or reuse certain respiratorsuse respirators beyond their manufacturer’s recommended shelf life, and/or use respirators certified under the standards of other countries or jurisdictions.

McCraren Compliance can help. We offer Respiratory Protection Training and Fit Testing required by OSHA.