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Business Costs & Regulation

Labor Dept. Set to Toughen Host Of Safety Rules

The Obama administration’s growing regulatory agenda will satisfy many union demands.

Among the new rules in the works at the Department of Labor are several that focus on workplace safety, including tighter rules on exposure to silica dust. That rule may be proposed as early as the middle of next year. Extended exposure to silica dust can result in chronic silicosis, a lung disease that can be fatal. Among the industries that could be affected by this rule are foundries; china and pottery manufacturing; paint, glass and concrete manufacturing; industries that have abrasive blasting operations; and many construction activities, including highway repair, masonry, concrete work and rock drilling. “This proposal is showing movement for the first time in many years,” says Peg Seminario, director of safety and health at the AFL-CIO.

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Required logging of back, neck and shoulder injuries in injury logs is in the cards. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) says the goal is to keep better track of musculoskeletal disorders and to help employers identify workplace hazards, but employer groups fear it’s the first step in another attempt at an ergonomic regulation. The Clinton administration proposed an ergonomic rule, but it was scrapped by the Republican Congress.

Tighter limits on dust for underground coal mines are being sped up. The proposal wasn’t scheduled to come out until April 2011, but now is expected soon. The Mine Safety and Health Administration is expected to permit just 1 milligram of coal dust per cubic meter instead of the current 2 milligrams. The push comes as the incidence of black lung disease, which is linked to coal dust, is on the rise. By April 2010, the agency also is expected to require miners to use personal dust monitors, allowing them to measure their exposure to coal dust in real time.

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More protection for workers against airborne infectious diseases may also be coming. OSHA will begin to explore whether a standard should be issued requiring employers to establish infection control measures to protect workers from airborne pathogens such as tuberculosis, chicken pox and new threats such as pandemic flu. The standard would apply mainly to health care facilities, but also to homeless shelters, drug treatment centers and correctional facilities. It may apply to certain labs as well.Disclosure rules for employers that use consultants on unionization issues are a good bet. Employers would be required to tell the government about the nature of any advice given them by consultants on how to deal with unions and unionization activity. Employers currently don’t have to report on advice from consultants, many of which are law firms. The Labor Department is expected to narrow this exception to the reporting requirement in a proposal issued around November 2010.

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