There’s a lot of griping in Washington DC about businesses being burdened by too many federal regulations. The gripers and their friends on Capitol Hill have introduced legislation with snappy names, such as the SCRUB Act (Searching for and Cutting Regulations that are Unnecessarily Burdensome), the REINS Act (Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny) and the ALERT Act (All Economic Regulations are Transparent). But there’s no doubt these laws are designed to put the skids on the rulemaking process. For some agencies, including OSHA, they’ve already been riding the regulatory brake for the last couple of decades. There hasn’t been a gusher of new regulations. OSHA regulations, in particular, take far too long to be developed and put in place.
Thankfully, one OSHA regulation that’s been in the pipeline for decades—yes, decades—may finally be issued. The White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) completed its review on April 3 of a final OSHA regulation to protect construction workers from confined space hazards. Vessels, tanks, vents and other small spaces can be deadly hazards for workers because they can be oxygen-deficient, explosive, or configured in such a way that a worker could get trapped. It really has taken decades to get us to this point. Here’s some of the long history:
It was 1975 when OSHA first indicated the need for a regulation to address confined space hazards for workers in all industries, including construction. In a 1975 advanced notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPRM), OSHA noted it had:
“received several petitions and other recommendations concerning the need for a revision of the existing standards for work in confined spaces, such as tanks, boilers, sewer vaults, manholes, pressure vessels, trenches, and other confined compartments, or for a standard for work in these environments applicable to all industries.”
In March 1980 in a follow-up ANPRM, the agency said:
“Based on information available to the Agency, OSHA believes that the hazards of work in confined spaces are also significant in the construction industry. Therefore, OSHA is developing a proposal to revise its existing standards in order to effectively cover hazards connected with these activities in construction.”
During May 1980, the agency held public hearings in Houston, Denver and Washington DC to receive input on the need for the standard and how it could be designed to meet workers’ and employers’ needs. Then came the Reagan Administration. Work at OSHA on a confined space regulation went dormant.
The proposal was resurrected during the George H.W. Bush Administration. In June 1989—14 years after OSHA’s first ANPRM on the topic and nine years after those public hearings, the agency formally proposed a rule to address confined space hazards for workers. Among other data, the agency reported that between 1985 and 1990 there were at least 63 fatalities and nearly 6,000 lost-work day incidents related to confined space environments.
OSHA’s proposed rule did not, however, apply to the construction industry. OSHA asserted:
“…confined space standards for agriculture, construction, and shipyard work should be addressed separately so that the Agency can focus on aspects of permit space safety that are specifically appropriate for these areas.” (4470)
That decision was controversial and not well received by some. One (unnamed) commenter said:
“I find it a grave error not to include construction in the proposed rulemaking. As your statistics succinctly point out, between 1974 and 1977, 276 confined space accidents claimed 234 lives and injured an additional 193 individuals. …Based upon these figures, why would you want to exclude construction?”
Three and one-half years later, in January 1993, OSHA’s final rule on confined space for general industry workers was issued. It happened just days before the Clinton Administration was poised to take office. Both industry and labor groups challenged the OSHA rule. Some argued it went too far, others argued it didn’t go far enough. By September 1994, all the objections had been addressed through settlement agreements.
In OSHA’s settlement agreement with the United Steelworkers Union, the agency made a big promise:
OSHA agreed to issue a confined space standard that would apply to workers in the construction industry.
The agreement did not, however, give OSHA a deadline for completing the task.
Here’s what has transpired in the 21 years since to fulfill that promise:
- In February 1994, OSHA asked its Advisory Committee for Construction Safety and Health (ACCSH) to provide feedback on a draft proposed standard addressing the hazards of confined spaces for construction workers. ACCSH formed a working group which ultimately develop a draft proposed standard. In late 1996, ACCSH recommended that OSHA use their draft standard as the agency’s proposed rule.
- OSHA determined that the ACCSH document was not wholly appropriate as a proposed rule, in particular for small construction firms.
- OSHA held public hearings in October 2000 to receive feedback from the construction industry on draft provisions of the proposed rule.
- In late 2003, OSHA convened a panel of small business representatives (as required by the Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act (SBREFA)) to receive formal comments on its draft proposed rule.
- Between 2004 and 2007, OSHA’s semi-annual regulatory agendas indicated that a proposed rule on this topic was forthcoming. In the fall of 2004, the agency said the public could expect it in March 2005. In Spring 2005, the agency said the public could expect it in December 2005, etc., etc.
- OSHA submitted the proposed rule to the White House’s OIRA in July 2007. OIRA completed its review and returned the proposal to OSHA in October 2007. The proposal was published by OSHA in November 2007.
- OSHA held public hearings on the proposal and the comment period closed in October 2008.
- In 2010, the Obama Administration indicated that work on the final rule was nearly complete. OSHA’s Fall 2010 regulatory agenda indicated the final rule would likely be published by November 2011. Between late 2010 and late 2014, the agency suggested the final rule was forthcoming. In the fall of 2011, the agency said the public could expect it in June 2012. In the spring of 2013, the agency said the public could expect it in December 2013, etc., etc.
- In November 2014, OSHA submitted its draft final rule to OIRA for review. OIRA completed its review after about 120 days and returned the final rule to OSHA on April 3, 2015.
OSHA is likely putting finishing touches on the final rule and preparing to release it in the weeks ahead. Once it is issued, I won’t be surprised if I hear complaints about it from certain lawmakers and those who oppose federal regulations. They may claim it’s an example of Obama’s avalanche of regulations, but it’s much more an example of something else: without a binding deadline, it can take OSHA decades to issue a new worker safety regulation.
Poorer health, shorter lives and lower incomes: ‘We don’t really appreciate the magnitude of the problem’
Low income and poor health tend to go hand in hand — that’s not a particularly surprising or new statement. However, according to family medicine doctor Steven Woolf, we have yet to truly grasp the extent to which income shapes a person’s health and opportunity to live a long life. And if we don’t confront the widening income inequality gap, he says things will only get worse.
“There’s a general awareness that people who have poor education or low incomes have worse health outcomes, but our sense is that we don’t really appreciate the magnitude of the problem,” Woolf told me. “Every time I look at these data, I am still stunned at how dramatic the differences are.”
Woolf, who serves as director of the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University and is a professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Population Health, recently co-authored a series of reports on the connections between income, education and health under the umbrella of two related efforts: The Education and Health Initiative and the Income and Health Initiative. This week, Woolf and his colleagues released two new reports, “How Are Income and Wealth Linked to Health and Longevity?” and “Can Income-Related Policies Improve Population Health?” Woolf said while both reports don’t necessarily contain new information, they were specifically designed to “connect the dots and help the public and policymakers appreciate the fact that decisions about the economy and jobs have big implications not only for the health of Americans, but also for the rising cost of health care.”
“It’s not like we as a society are ignoring the economy,” Woolf said. “But whichever approach you take, we have to understand that there are implications for health and for health care costs.”
The information gathered in “How Are Income and Wealth Linked to Health and Longevity?” is particularly galvanizing. In it, co-authors Woolf, Sarah Simon, Laudan Aron, Emily Zimmerman, Lisa Dubay and Kim Luk write:
The greater one’s income, the lower one’s likelihood of disease and premature death. Studies show that Americans at all income levels are less healthy than those with incomes higher than their own. Not only is income (the earnings and other money acquired each year) associated with better health, but wealth (net worth and assets) affects health as well.
Though it is easy to imagine how health is tied to income for the very poor or the very rich, the relationship between income and health is a gradient: they are connected step-wise at every level of the economic ladder. Middle-class Americans are healthier than those living in or near poverty, but they are less healthy than the upper class. Even wealthy Americans are less healthy than those Americans with higher incomes.
In a table illustrating the burden of various diseases by income in 2011, the differences are striking. For example, 8.1 percent of adults with an annual family income of less than $35,000 have coronary heart disease, compared to 4.9 percent of adults with an annual family income of $100,000 or more; 11 percent of adults in the less than $35,000 category have diabetes, compared to 5.9 percent of adults in the $100,000 or more category; 3 percent of adults in the less than $35,000 category have kidney disease, compared to 0.9 percent of adults in the $100,000 or more category; and 11.6 percent of adults in the less than $35,000 category have no teeth, compared to 4.1 percent of adults in the $100,000 or more category. Children living in low-income families face higher rates of disease as well — more asthma, more hearing problems, more heart conditions and higher blood lead levels — all of which affect their opportunity to do well in school and heightens their risk of poor health in adulthood.
Income is linked with life expectancy as well. The report tells us that by age 25, Americans in the highest income group can expect to live about six years longer than their poorer peers. Woolf tells me that such income differences explain many of the documented health disparities among U.S. racial and ethnic groups. He said: “Even after we adjust for other factors, (income and education) account for a huge part — it’s really about the life circumstances people face.”
So, how exactly do income and wealth impact a person’s health? The first and probably most obvious answer is access to health care. People with low incomes are less able to afford health care services, health insurance, co-payments, deductibles and medicines (though the Affordable Care Act is aimed at removing or lessening the access obstacle). But the health-income association is bigger than access to health care; the report argues that those with higher incomes also enjoy the benefits of healthier community assets. The report states:People with higher incomes are more likely to experience place-based health benefits, meaning that their health is positively influenced by the conditions and assets in their living environment. In other words, even after adjusting for income and other attributes of individuals and households, health benefits appear to be associated with where people reside. …
The socioeconomic status of individuals and neighborhoods are intertwined with individual and population health because the local economy determines access to jobs, commerce, schools, and other resources that enable families to enjoy economic success and place-based health benefits. For example, one study found that “healthy adults residing in socioeconomically deprived neighborhoods died at a higher rate than did people in relatively less deprived areas, even after accounting for individual-level socioeconomic status, lifestyle practices, and medical history.” Smoking, diabetes, and other conditions are more common for people living in poor neighborhoods, independent of their income.
Along with the health and longevity report, the Income and Health Initiative also released “Can Income-Related Policies Improve Population Health?” That report explores ways to reduce income-related obstacles to better health through three types of policies: those that address early childhood, those that provide income support, and those that improve community and neighborhood conditions. Within these categories, the report addresses a variety of specific policies, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program as well as private and public sector efforts to improve community conditions, such building affordable housing or developing safe recreational areas for children. However, no intervention “seems more promising than education, especially early childhood education,” the report stated.
As a physician, Woolf told me that clinical interventions often have marginal impacts when compared to the effects of social determinants. For example, rates of diabetes — a growing and major source of suffering and cost within the health care system — are about twice as high among low-income people than among those with higher incomes.
“So it stands to reason that the economic burden of treating the disease could be substantially lowered if these people had better economic circumstances,” he said. “Of all the things we do for diabetes in the clinic, we’re not often thinking about how to help people with their educational and economic circumstances…that would probably save more lives than what we do at the bedside.”
So, if income and education are key to better health and lower health care costs, what can physicians and public health practitioners do? First, Woolf said be aware of the connections when working with patients and clients. (“I tell my students that if they don’t understand where their patients live or what kind of economic challenges they’re facing, they can’t expect their clinical plans to produce good outcomes,” he said.) Second, get active in your community — help fellow residents and decision-makers understand that while decisions about education and economic development may not seem connected to health on the surface, such decisions have a direct impact on people’s health and on health care costs. At the national level, do a better job of packaging the data in a way that resonates with policymakers, he said.
While taking to the streets certainly has a role in driving meaningful social change, Woolf said scientists may be most helpful by sticking to and advocating for the science.
“The social justice arguments are very important to many of us, but they don’t always move the needle in the policy world,” he said. “Other kinds of arguments are now taking center stage, like analyses by major economists…showing that income inequality has reached a point that’s so severe that it’s undermining our economy and putting America at a competitive disadvantage. …We live in a cynical society where we need to point out those particular arguments to get the attention of policymakers.”
To download all the reports from the two initiatives, including a series of reports on the economic and health benefits of investing in education, visit the Center on Society and Health.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.
A few of the recent pieces I’ve liked:
L.V. Anderson at Slate: We Should Have a Better Condom by Now. Here’s Why We Don’t
Emily Badger and Christopher Ingraham at Wonkblog: The rich get government handouts just like the poor. Here are 10 of them.
Mark Binelli in the New York Times: Inside America’s Toughest Federal Prison
Jonathan Cohn at the Huffington Post: Working Parents Should Be Very Happy About This Obscure Senate Vote
In Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy — home to some of the most endangered subspecies of rhinoceros — officials are deploying a new weapon to combat rampant rhino poaching: highly trained K-9 dogs. Six Belgian Malinois tracking and attack dogs are now working with Kenyan rangers to protect tiny populations of northern white rhinos and eastern black rhinos, which have been hunted to near-extinction by poachers seeking rhino horn for supposed medicinal purposes. Overseen by a former military dog instructor with the U.K. Royal Army Veterinary Corps, the K-9 units are being deployed not only in Ol Pejeta but also in a Tanzanian park that has been plagued by poaching.
Read the article.
Today, nearly every state in the country has a law that bans texting while driving. But do these laws make a difference?
A group of researchers took on that question, comparing crash-related hospitalizations among states with a texting-while-driving ban and states without such a ban. And they found some encouraging results: Texting bans were associated with a 7 percent reduction in crash-related hospitalizations among all age groups, especially among those ages 22 to 64. To conduct the study, which was published in the May issue of the American Journal of Public Health, researchers examined data from the Nationwide Inpatient Sample from 19 states between 2003 and 2010 and compared crash-related hospitalizations in states after the implementation of a texting ban to states with no texting ban.
The researchers noted that 416,000 of the more than 2.3 million U.S. residents who sought medical care after a motor vehicle crash in 2009 reported that the crashes involved a distracted driver. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration defines distraction as activities that divert a driver’s attention away from the task of driving, such as cell phones, navigation systems or talking with passengers. While previous research has examined the associations between texting bans and crash-related fatalities as well as texting bans and insurance collision claims, the researchers wrote that this may be the first study to examine the impact of texting bans on crash-related hospitalizations. Study authors Alva Ferdinand, Nir Menachemi, Justin Blackburn, Bisakha Sen, Leonard Nelson and Michael Morrisey wrote:
In 2001, New York implemented the first state ban on talking on a handheld cell phone while driving. Several states, including California and Connecticut, followed suit. However, these early laws allowed handheld dialing and did not explicitly ban text messaging. Some states subsequently enacted legislation explicitly banning drivers from texting (reading, manually composing, or sending text messages, instant messages, or e-mails via a portable electronic device) while driving. However, because of the relative novelty of texting bans, little is known about their impact on roadway safety.
In zeroing in on the impact of texting bans, as opposed to more general bans on the use of handheld devices while driving, the study found that even after controlling for variables such as population size, states with a texting ban experienced a decrease in motor vehicle crash-related hospitalizations. However, even though texting-while-driving bans were associated with a significant reduction in hospitalizations among people ages 22 to 64, only marginal reductions were found among adolescents and young adults, those ages 15 to 21.
Overall, the researchers estimated that such reductions translate into the yearly prevention of 30 motor vehicle-related hospitalizations per studied hospital in the states with a primary texting ban. In conclusion: “Our findings suggest that states that have not passed primarily enforced texting bans should consider doing so.”
According to 2011 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 31 percent of U.S. drivers ages 18 to 64 reported having read or sent a text or email while driving in the prior month. The public health agency also reported a 9 percent increase in the number of people injured in a car crash that involved a distracted driver between 2011 and 2012.
To request of full copy of the new texting study, visit the American Journal of Public Health.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.
Imagine a workplace in your town where one of every three employees had the same work-related illness. Better yet, imagine that it was one in three employees in your own workplace. That’d be pretty shocking, right?
Well, that’s what the CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found among 191 workers at Amick Farms’ poultry processing plant in Hurlock, MD. Thirty-four percent had carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS). Equally striking, a whopping 76 percent of the workers in the study had evidence of nerve damage in their hands and wrists. The findings of this NIOSH “Health Hazard Evaluation” were released today.
The Amick Farms plant processes about 177,000 chickens per day with a workforce of 877 employees in production jobs. The workers, who are represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) Local 27, typically work 8-hour shifts and are given a 36-minute lunch break and another 12-minute break. The incessant line speed and repetitive motion of the cutting tasks have workers in not just this plant, but throughout the poultry industry, calling their workplaces “houses of pain.”
In a blog post about the Amick Farms’ HHE, the NIOSH researchers note:
“The high prevalence of carpal tunnel syndrome at this plant is not surprising given the literature on the topic as well as past NIOSH HHEs in poultry processing showing a link between carpal tunnel syndrome and levels of exposure to hand repetition and force above recommended limits.”
No, I guess we shouldn’t be surprised by the results. It was around this time last year when NIOSH released another HHE from a different poultry processing plant. This one, from a Pilgrim’s Pride facility in South Carolina, found 42 percent prevalence of CTS among 375 workers on the daytime production shift. 42%, 34%, it’s all bad news for poultry processing workers.
Both of these HHE’s were requested by the firms in order to fulfill a requirement by the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS). Poultry companies that wanted to convert to an alternative inspection system called the “Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) Inspection Models Project (HIMP)” had to invite NIOSH to conduct an HHE. The alternative system reduces the number of FSIS inspectors and allows the plants to increase production line speeds.
NIOSH’s evaluation at the Amick Farms’ plant involved multiple visits to the facility during 2014. Ninety-six percent of the 199 eligible employees participated. Their average age was 40 years (range: 20–70), with 46% of the workers identifying as Hispanic, 30% identifying as African-American, and 20% identifying as Creole. The workers answered a questionnaire about their work and medical history. Each of them also underwent nerve conduction test (which I hear is downright painful.)
What did NIOSH find?
The agency identified 64 workers (34%) who met its case definition for CTS:
Pain, numbness, burning, tingling in the hands or wrists, occurring more than 3 times or lasting 7 days or longer in the past 12 months; AND marked or shaded the location of their symptoms in the median nerve distribution area on a hand symptom diagram; AND an abnormal median nerve conduction in the affected hand or wrist.
Worse yet, 42% had carpal tunnel in both hands.
The nerve conduction test results were also alarming. Of the 64 workers with CTS, 92% had moderate or severe median mononeuropathy in at least one hand. Among all 191 workers who had nerve conduction tests, the presence of median mononeuropathy was rated as moderate in 49% of the workers and severe in 13%. Even without the sophisticated nerve conduction tests, 110 of the 191 workers reported having symptoms of musculoskeletal injuries. Fifty-eight percent, for example, reported being awakened from sleep in the last 7 days by the symptoms. (At the South Carolina Pilgrim’s Pride plant, 67 percent of workers reported this same problem.)
The NIOSH HHE also included videotaping of numerous job tasks in the plant. The researchers observed workers having to reach above their shoulders to use knife sharpeners (many times per shift) and did not have the ability to adjust platforms to fit their height and the type of work. These sort of work-design failures are key contributors to musculoskeletal injuries. The researchers noted that 59% of the tasks exceeded the recommended limits established by ACGIH for hand activity and force.
Like NIOSH, I’m not surprised by these terrible findings, and I know that poultry workers at these and other plants across the country won’t be surprised either. The poultry industry has been allowed to take a pass and not be held accountable for the injuries sustained by its workers. The companies are not required to fix the conditions that cause these injuries because there are no meaningful federal regulations that require them to do so.
I appreciate the thoughtful time and effort invested by NIOSH in conducting the HHEs in these poultry plants. At some point, however, more studies finding the same result just become an interesting academic exercise. There’s already plenty in the scientific literature about the types and causes of injuries in poultry processing plants. How many more HHEs and studies do policy makers need before they tell the poultry industry enough is enough?