Washington — Methylene chloride poses “unreasonable risk” to workers under certain conditions, according to a final risk evaluation recently released by the Environmental Protection Agency, which now is compelled to propose within one year regulatory action to mitigate the chemical’s hazards.
Frequently used for bathtub refinishing, methylene chloride is among the first 10 chemicals under evaluation for potential health and environmental risks under the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act. In 2014, EPA found that exposure to the chemical may cause cancer, harm to the central nervous system and toxicity to the liver, among other adverse health effects.
The final evaluation, published June 19, is the first to be released for the 10 chemicals. Announced via a notice published in the June 24 Federal Register, the document states methylene chloride poses unreasonable risk to workers involved in numerous operations, including:
- Plastic and rubber manufacturing
- Electrical equipment, appliance and component manufacturing
- Oil and gas drilling, extraction and support activities
- Adhesive/caulk removal
- Cold pipe insulation
- Aerosol and non-aerosol degreasing and cleaning
Additionally, EPA determined an unreasonable risk is not present during the following conditions of use:
- Domestic manufacture
- Processing as a reactant
- Distribution in commerce
- Industrial and commercial use as a laboratory chemical
As required under the Toxic Substances Control Act, which the Lautenberg Act amended, EPA must address risks by proposing within one year regulatory actions such as training, certification, restricted access, and/or ban of commercial use, and then accept public comment on any proposals.
“Releasing the first final risk evaluation marks a key milestone in our efforts to fulfill our responsibilities for ensuring the safety of chemicals already on the market,” Alexandra Dapolito Dunn, assistant administrator of the EPA Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution, said in a June 19 press release. “By following the TSCA process, we can have confidence in our final conclusions and move forward with developing a plan to protect the public from any unreasonable risks.”
In March 2019, EPA published a final rule that prohibits manufacture (including import), processing and distribution of the substance in paint removers for consumer use, as well as requires manufacturers, processors and distributors to notify retailers and others in the supply chain about the ban.
EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in the release that the action “builds on last year’s ban on consumer sales of certain methylene chloride products and will guide the agency’s efforts to further reduce risks from this chemical.”
Liz Hitchcock, director of the Washington-based advocacy group Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, called on the agency to expedite its regulatory actions, contending in a June 19 statement that “the longer EPA drags its feet, the more lives will be lost.” According to Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, at least 64 people have died from acute exposure to methylene chloride since 1980.
“The time for study and talk is long past,” Hitchcock’s statement reads. “EPA should take immediate action on the danger it has once again recognized in this risk evaluation and finish the job to protect workers. The agency must immediately finalize its proposed ban on commercial use of these products. To wait any longer to protect workers from these dangerous products when EPA has the ability to ban them now is unconscionable and will result in more preventable deaths.”
In April 2019, Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families was part of a coalition of groups representing worker rights that filed a lawsuit against EPA and Wheeler for excluding workers in the final rule.
EPA previously solicited comments on problem formation documents for the first 10 chemicals before releasing its first draft risk evaluation – for Pigment Violet 29 – in November 2018. The agency released its draft risk evaluation for methylene chloride in October.
EPA says it plans to release final risk evaluations for the remaining nine of the first 10 chemicals by the end of the year.
“This hearing is about ensuring federal agencies have plans and necessary resources to enable continuity of operations throughout the pandemic,” Connolly said. “This hearing is about ensuring the thousands of federal workers who have contracted the coronavirus are respected.”
Lorraine M. Martin, CEO and president of the National Safety Council and one of four witnesses testifying during the hearing, said the federal government “can set the example.” Such an example, Martin said, would follow “all the guidance from health organizations” as well as large multinational companies that “have very detailed playbooks on how to bring their folks back to work and when to bring them back.”
NSC launched its SAFER: Safe Actions for Employee Returns initiative in May to help employers understand all the needed steps and considerations for bringing employees back to the workplace. Martin highlighted a new SAFER resource: the Organizational Vulnerability Assessment tool, which organizations can use to get “tailored recommendations.”
The subcommittee’s Republicans want the federal government to stay away from a “one-size-fits-all” approach. Two subcommittee members pointed to Internal Revenue Service office closures, which they say have slowed the issuance of tax refunds.
In contrast, Jacqueline Simon, national policy director for the American Federation of Government Employees, called on federal workplaces to delay bringing workers back until “agencies have the full capacity to test, protect, trace and inform their workforces, and unless and until genuine, objective data on the status of the pandemic shows it has subsided.”
Simon also noted the success of remote work during the pandemic. “Since so many have been successfully teleworking throughout the pandemic, I inevitably ask why the rush to return?” she asked.
J. Christopher Mihm, managing director for strategic issues in the Government Accountability Office, added that “agencies’ experiences with telework during the global pandemic suggest opportunities for increased availability of telework in the future.”
Mihm also called for strengthened two-way communication, especially listening to and addressing employees’ concerns, as well as cooperation and information sharing among agencies in the same geographic areas.
Martin said telework by at least some employees in organizations – already a trend before the pandemic – likely is “here to stay.”
“Our country and its citizens have all experienced great trauma because of the coronavirus,” Martin said. “Worrying about one’s safety and well-being at work should not be needlessly added to this burden.”
- Phasing. Create a phased transition to return to work aligned with risk and exposure levels.
- Sanitize. Disinfect the workplace and make any alterations needed so employees can easily practice physical distancing.
- Screenings. Develop a health status screening process for all employees.
- Hygiene. Create a plan for handling employees who get sick, and encourage good hygiene.
- Tracing. If workers get sick, follow proper contact tracing steps to curb the spread of COVID-19.
- Mental health. Commit to supporting the mental and emotional health of your workers by sharing support resources and policies.
- Training. Train leaders and supervisors at your organization on the fundamentals of safety. These fundamentals include risk assessment and hazard recognition, as well as the mental and wellness-related impacts of COVID-19. Your employees will feel the effects of the pandemic long after it’s over.
- Engagement plan. Notify employees in advance of the return to their pre-coronavirus workplace. Consider categorizing workers into different groups based on job roles and bringing back groups or departments one at a time.
- Communication. Create a communication plan that involves being open and transparent with workers about returning to work.
- Assessment. Outline the main factors you’re using as guidance to provide a simple structure for the extremely complex return-to-work decision.
SAFER: Safe Actions for Employee Returns – a group of experts from companies of all sizes, leading safety organizations, nonprofits, government agencies and public health organizations – is the first national task force focused on worker safety.
For more information, go to nsc.org/safer.
Here are some travel safety tips from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. First, ask yourself these questions:
- Is COVID-19 spreading where you’re going? How about where you live?
- Is it realistic that travel companions will be able to stay 6 feet from you?
- If you are traveling with others, are they at high risk for severe illness (i.e., older adults and people with existing medical conditions)?
- Do you live with someone who is at high risk for illness?
- Does your local government require you to stay home for 14 days after your trip?
- If you get sick, will you have to miss work?
“Do not travel if you are sick, or if you have been around someone with COVID-19 in the past 14 days,” CDC states. “Do not travel with someone who is sick.”
If you do decide to travel, follow these tips:
- Clean your hands often. Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after being in a public place. Use hand sanitizer if you can’t wash your hands.
- Don’t touch your eyes, nose or mouth.
- Avoid close contact with others.
- Wear a face covering in public.
- Cover your mouth when you sneeze or cough.
- Pick up food curbside if you eat out.
Announced in a June 23 press release, the safety alert and five-minute video include highlights from a Center for Chemical Process Safety guidance document. Assessment of and Planning for Natural Hazards, published in October, was developed after CSB’s investigation into an August 2017 incident at an Arkema Inc. chemical plant in Crosby, TX.
After flooding from Hurricane Harvey caused an evacuation of the facility, organic peroxide products stored inside a formerly refrigerated trailer decomposed and caught fire, releasing dangerous fumes and smoke into the air. Officials initially chose to keep a nearby highway open and, as a result, 21 people needed medical attention for exposure to hazardous fumes. More than 200 residents living nearby were later evacuated and could not return home for a week.
CSB found “a significant lack of industry guidance on planning for flooding or other severe weather events” despite an increase in flooding throughout the United States in recent years.
“Some experts predict this trend will continue,” CSB Chair and CEO Katherine Lemos says in the video. “The incident at Arkema is not an anomaly.
“When analyzing safety hazards at a facility, companies are not specifically required to consider the risks of extreme weather. For this reason, I’m concerned that other companies may not be aware of the potential for flooding to create process safety hazards.”
Brentwood, TN — Drinking alcohol while working from home may be an emerging concern during the COVID-19 pandemic, with 1 out of 3 respondents to a recent survey saying they’re more likely than usual to do so.
Alcohol.org – a resource of the American Addiction Centers, a national provider of addiction treatment services – in late March conducted an online survey of 3,000 U.S. adults working from home “to find out how many are using their new office setup as an excuse to drink.”
In general, 35% of the respondents said they were more likely to consume alcohol while self-isolating, while 22% said they’ve stockpiled alcohol over other food and drink items while isolating. Beer was the beverage of choice for 38% of the respondents, followed by cocktails (26%), wine (21%) and straight spirits (15%).
“These are stressful times as many employees struggle with having to adapt to a home working environment, in which distractions are abundant and alcohol may seem like a good solution,” an alcohol.org spokesperson said on the website. “There are a number of accessible online resources available if you suspect substance addiction, such as support helplines, chat rooms and forums.”
The survey results were published on the website April 2.
Atlanta — The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has published a series of fact sheets for airport, airline and transit employers to help protect their workers from exposure to COVID-19.
Each of the 12 fact sheets contains steps employers should take, tips for workers based on specific job tasks, instructions on which surfaces should be cleaned and disinfected, a link to the Environmental Protection Agency’s list of approved disinfectants for use against the coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) that causes COVID-19, and links to other COVID-19-related online resources.
The fact sheets cover:
- Airline customer service representatives and gate agents
- Airline catering kitchen staff
- Airline catering truck drivers and helpers
- Aircraft maintenance workers
- Airport baggage and cargo handlers
- Airport custodial staff
- Airport passenger assistance workers
- Airport retail or food service workers
- Bus transit operators
- Rail transit operators
- Transit maintenance workers
- Transit station workers
The fact sheets explain how COVID-19 can spread, describe who is at higher risk for more serious complications and list the disease’s common symptoms.
Oakland, CA — Employers are responsible for protecting workers from heat illness, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health – also known as Cal/OSHA – reiterates in a recent reminder.
Since 2005, the state has had a heat illness prevention standard for all outdoor workers, including those in agriculture, construction and landscaping. Also protected under the standard are those who spend a significant amount of time working outdoors, such as security guards and groundskeepers, or in non-air-conditioned vehicles such as transportation and delivery drivers.
Under the standard, employers must:
- Develop and implement an effective written heat illness prevention plan that includes emergency response procedures.
- Provide instruction on heat illness prevention to all supervisors and employees.
- Make available drinking water that is fresh, pure and suitably cool, and encourage workers to drink at least 1 quart per hour.
- Make sure shade is available when temperatures exceed 80° F or when workers request it, and encourage rest breaks.
Employers also should consider heat illness mitigation strategies while implementing required measures designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including allowing appropriate time and space for workers to take breaks while maintaining physical distancing protocol. Further, employers should provide cloth facial coverings or allow workers to use their own.
“Employers should be aware that wearing face coverings can make it more difficult to breathe and harder for a worker to cool off, so additional breaks may be needed to prevent overheating,” Cal/OSHA says in a May 26 press release, adding that agricultural and other outdoor workers are not encouraged to wear surgical or respirator masks as facial coverings.
The agency has published a sample document employers can use to develop a heat illness prevention plan.
Washington — Bipartisan legislation recently introduced in the Senate would require the Mine Safety and Health Administration to issue an emergency temporary standard within seven days of enactment, followed by the issuance of a final rule.
The COVID-19 Mine Worker Protection Act (S. 3710) – introduced May 13 by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) – would forbid mine operators from retaliating against mine workers who report infection control problems to employers or any public authority.
According to May 14 press release from Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), one of the bill’s seven co-sponsors, the legislation also would require:
- Mine operators to provide workers with personal protective equipment.
- MSHA to issue a permanent comprehensive infectious disease standard within two years.
- MSHA to track, analyze and investigate mine-related COVID-19 infection data – in coordination with OSHA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – to make recommendations and guidance to protect workers.
“Miners have put their health at risk for years to power our country,” Brown said in the release. “Now they’re facing more danger, as working conditions put them at higher risk of contracting COVID-19.”
MSHA says it has received a “high volume” of questions about COVID-19. In response, the agency published an information sheet with recommendations for miners and mine operators to help prevent the spread of the disease, along with a list of actions MSHA has taken during the ongoing pandemic.
Miners and mine operators are encouraged to stay home when sick, avoid close contact with others, wash hands frequently, and regularly clean and disinfect equipment and commonly touched surfaces.
The bill – co-sponsored by five other Senate Democrats and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) – was referred to the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee on May 13.