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OSHA urged to act on emergency responder standard

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The National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health has recommended that OSHA expeditiously pursue a formal rule-making for an emergency responder preparedness program standard despite ongoing concerns about its limited scope and its potential financial impact on small emergency service organizations. 

In 2007, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration published a request for information on emergency response issues and whether an updated regulation was needed since its current fire brigade standard was developed in 1980, but the effort gained new momentum after the April 2013 death of 12 emergency responders in an ammonium nitrate explosion in West, Texas. 

From 2010 to 2014, an average of 68,119 firefighters were injured in the United States annually and 493 died during that timeframe, according to the National Fire Protection Association. 

“We have got to lower the fatality and injury and illness rate of the firefighters in this nation,” Anne Soiza, assistant director for the Washington Division of Occupational Safety and Health in Olympia, Washington, and NACOSH chair, said during a committee meeting on Wednesday. 

The draft regulation developed by NACOSH’s subcommittee on emergency response and preparedness would require emergency service organizations to write and implement a comprehensive risk management plan covering risks associated with administration, facilities, training, vehicle operations, protective clothing and equipment, emergency and nonemergency incidents and related activities. It would also controversially require new emergency service organization facilities to utilize stairs or slides to provide rapid access to a lower level, barring the building of new poles at these facilities two years after a final rule is published.

The full committee approved advising OSHA to pursue a formal rule-making despite lingering concerns about its lack of widespread applicability. A regulation would have limited impact because many emergency responders — primarily state, county and municipal employers — do not fall under OSHA's jurisdiction. The Occupational Safety and Health Act covers most private employees, but not state and local governmental workers unless they are in a state that has an OSHA-approved state plan. This means that the proposed rule would apply in the 26 states such as Oregon and Washington that have OSHA-approved state plans, but not in the 24 states including Texas and Pennsylvania that do not have OSHA-approved state plans.

“Who is it really going to apply to, and is it really going to have an impact on the 68,000 injuries and 493 deaths or is it just a paper exercise?” said Joseph Van Houten, senior director of worldwide environment, health and safety at Johnson & Johnson in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and an employer representative on NACOSH. “That’s my concern.” 

While urging OSHA to pursue a formal rule-making process, several stakeholders also asked the agency to be mindful of the draft’s potential fiscal impact on small emergency service organizations, such as a requirement they conduct periodic fitness assessments for all responders. 

David Finger, chief of legislative and regulatory affairs for the National Volunteer Fire Council in Washington, said there would need to be accommodations for smaller departments before the council could support implementation. 

“Specifically, we oppose any blanket federal requirement that agencies provide annual physical examinations unless there is funding provided to pay for it,” he said. “Additionally, we believe that an exemption for departments that cannot afford to comply with the requirements in the draft regulations should be added to the draft before it’s finalized.”

The council has estimated that the current language requiring physicals would cost an average of $16,000 a year, which for some fire departments would roughly equal their annual budgets, Mr. Finger said.