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OSHA targets emergency responders

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The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration is facing significant backlash about costs, uneven applicability and whether it has the authority to develop a new emergency responder standard beyond the federal level in the wake of the deadly and destructive West, Texas, fertilizer plant explosion.

The April 2013 blast at West Fertilizer Co. killed 15 people, including 12 emergency responders, injured dozens and leveled large portions of the town, resulting in losses of $230 million.

Ironically, OSHA's safety proposal would not apply to the town and situation that sparked the proposal.

At OSHA's request, a subcommittee of the National Advisory Committee for Occupational Safety and Health drafted the proposed standard. It 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 also would include hazard identification and risk evaluation, control techniques and monitoring, among other actions.

The draft is directly aimed at addressing a key vulnerability for emergency services organizations, particularly in responding to incidents at facilities housing hazardous materials.

A January report by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board about the 2013 Texas blast concluded that the local volunteer fire department likely was unaware of and unprepared for the detonation of ammonium nitrate materials at the facility.

“The reason we're here now is because of the incident in the city of West, Texas,” Rick Ingram, health and safety adviser at BP P.L.C. in Goliad, Texas, and co-chair of the subcommittee, said during a subcommittee meeting in Washington last month. “What was missing there was the risk management plan.”

But some provisions of the OSHA plan have sparked controversy, including a ban on iconic fire station poles in new construction, effective two years after a final rule is published, to address serious injuries and even fatalities.

“The poles are a traditional thing,” but they are fraught with injuries, said Patrick Morrison, assistant to the general president for occupational health, safety and medicine at the International Association of Fire Fighters in Washington and a member of the subcommittee. “They're dangerous.”

In addition, the draft proposal would require emergency responders to undergo thorough medical evaluations each year, but experts say that would significantly strain the resources of state and local emergency services organizations.

“I'm just concerned that this is so specific that this would force a lot of my rural fire departments out of business,” said Bill Warren, director of the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health in Phoenix and a subcommittee member.

The proposals 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.

“No matter how good the rule is that eventually might get adopted, more than half of the country won't have to comply,” said Anne Soiza, assistant director of the Washington Division of Occupational Safety and Health in Olympia and chair of the OSHA advisory committee.

Given the limitations on OSHA's authority, the proposal would apply only to an estimated 10% to 25% of employers and employees at emergency services organizations in the 24 states without an OSHA-approved state plan, said Michael Wood, administrator of the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Division of the Department of Consumer and Business Services in Salem and a past chair of the Occupational Safety and Health Plan Association.

The association objected to OSHA's intent to develop the standard, in part because it is “particularly inappropriate” for OSHA to attempt to regulate state and local government emergency response — an area where it has no jurisdiction, experience or expertise, according to a letter the association sent last month to Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health David Michaels. Although the association supports OSHA's information-gathering activities in the wake of the West Fertilizer disaster, “this rule would have no regulatory impact on the fire department in West, Texas,” Mr. Wood said.

“That concern isn't because we disagree that there is a significant safety and health issue or that we don't share a deep awareness of the particular risks faced by firefighters and by folks more broadly involved in emergency response,” he said. “Our concern really has to do with the notion that federal OSHA is in this rulemaking crafting a rule that it will, in a broad sense, not need to live with because across-the-board federal OSHA does not have authority over state and local government.”