Back to Basics is a new weekly feature that highlights important but possibly overlooked information that any EHS professional should know. This week, we examine common workplace hazards that are among the most frequently cited by OSHA.
Don’t let all the new, exotic workplace hazards distract you from the basics. The COVID-19 pandemic, historic wildfires in the West, and unprecedented levels of excessive heat may be capturing the headlines and dominating the newscasts right now, but more common hazards in your facility or at your worksites need your attention. Safety and health concerns can seem exotic lately, and these new and emerging hazards have prompted active government responses:
- Last year, California, Michigan, Oregon, and Virginia established emergency rules for COVID-19, and there’s a new federal emergency COVID-19 rule for health care and healthcare support services; Oregon and Virginia made their rules permanent this year.
- The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) has reminded employers repeatedly this summer to comply with the agency’s heat illness prevention and wildfire smoke standards.
- This summer, Oregon created an emergency temporary standard (ETS) for heat stress while it develops a permanent rule.
However, common workplace hazards—chemicals in the workplace, energy sources or machinery not properly locked out, and unguarded machinery—can present serious worker risks and result in citations and substantial penalties. In fact, the top 10 most frequently cited Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards include the general industry hazard communication, lockout/tagout, and machine guarding standards. Others include the forklift (powered industrial trucks) and respiratory protection standards and five construction industry standards, including eye and face protection and four rules related to working at heights.
In fiscal year 2020, which ended September 30, 2020, OSHA cited the hazard communication standard (29 CFR §1910.1200) 3,199 times; the lockout/tagout standard (§1910.147) 2,065 times; and the machine guarding standard (§1910.212) 1,313 times.
Penalties for these and other violations can be substantial. For example, OSHA recently cited four employers with 59 violations and proposed nearly $1 million in penalties after six workers died at a poultry processing facility from nitrogen exposure caused by a malfunctioning freezer. OSHA inspectors with the agency’s Atlanta East Area Office took the following enforcement actions:
- Citing a poultry processor with violations of the lockout/tagout standard for not establishing lockout/tagout procedures at the facility and not providing employees with lockout/tagout training or informing employees of asphyxiation, mechanical, or thermal hazards, as well as violations of the hazard communication standard for not labeling nitrogen containers or the freezer room, not compiling a list of hazardous chemicals at the facility, not maintaining safety data sheets (SDSs) for each hazardous chemical, and not informing employees of nitrogen hazards or how to detect nitrogen leaks;
- Citing the company that delivered the nitrogen gas for lockout/tagout violations, including failing to establish procedures, train employees, coordinate lockout/tagout procedures with other employers at the facility, or ensure lockout or tagout devices were attached to equipment or machinery;
- Citing the company that provided cleaning and sanitation services at the plant with violations of the information and training provisions to the hazard communication standard and lockout/tagout violations, including failing to ensure lockout/tagout procedures were performed in the proper sequence, train employees, and coordinate lockout/tagout procedures with other employers at the facility; and
- Citing an equipment manufacturer and mechanical services provider with lockout/tagout violations for failing to develop, establish, and implement lockout/tagout procedures or coordinate lockout/tagout procedures with other employers at the facility, as well as hazard communication violations for failing to inform employees of hazardous chemicals or train them in measures to protect themselves from hazardous substances.
While the most serious violations cited and severest penalties proposed were related to the hazard communication and lockout/tagout violations, OSHA also cited several violations of the exit routes standard. Means of egress has been one of the fundamental workplace safety and health protections since the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. As we recently discussed, you must maintain well-lighted, unobstructed exit routes. Doors along an exit route that could be mistaken for exit doors must be marked “Not an Exit” or with a sign identifying their use, such as “Closet.”
OSHA enforcement of exit route rules can be strict. The agency has cited Dollar Tree Store locations across the country for blocked or obstructed exit routes and negotiated a settlement agreement with Target Corporation resolving several exit route violations at stores in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York.
The hazard communication standard is variously referred to as “worker right-to-know” (as opposed to community right-to-know, which falls under the EPA’s authority), “HazCom,” and HCS.
OSHA has cited employers in a wide range of industries with HazCom violations, from construction and manufacturing to accommodation and food services, waste management and remediation services, and the wholesale trade.
Under the HazCom standard, you must develop a written HazCom program covering all employees who may be exposed to hazardous substances at your facility or worksites. OSHA compliance safety and health officers (CSHOs) will issue citations for the lack of a written HazCom program. The program must include information and procedures for labels and other warnings, SDSs, and employee HazCom training.
As seen in OSHA’s enforcement actions at the poultry processing facility, the agency will cite both contract and host employers at multiemployer workplaces. Host and temporary employment agencies both are responsible for worker information and training when the employment or staffing agency’s employees are exposed to hazardous substances.
During an inspection, CSHOs will interview both employees and managers to assess compliance at a workplace with the HazCom training requirements. CSHOs also will use interviews to determine whether employees understand the hazards of chemicals in the workplace.
Your employees must be aware of the hazards they are exposed to and understand how to read container labels; find, read, and understand the SDSs; and know what precautions to take when exposed to hazardous substances.
In addition to training in health and other hazards of substances in the workplace, employees must be trained in the methods used to detect the presence or release of a hazardous chemical and measures to take to protect themselves. HazCom training must cover details of the HazCom program in the workplace and where to find SDSs and how to use the hazard information provided by an SDS.
Cleaning and disinfection recommendations during the COVID-19 pandemic have added a new wrinkle to HazCom compliance with the use of cleansers and disinfectants that come with a variety of hazards. The products on the EPA’s “List N” of Disinfectants for Use Against SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) can be corrosive, flammable, oxidizers, or toxic or cause skin irritation. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) maintains a table of health and other hazards, as well as protective measures necessary, for the chemicals on List N.
Lockout/tagout, machine guarding
OSHA has an ongoing national emphasis program (NEP) on amputations in manufacturing that includes inspections for and enforcement of the lockout/tagout and machine guarding standards. The agency issued a directive in December 2019 updating its NEP, targeting a wide range of manufacturers to reduce or eliminate amputation hazards. The emphasis program is focused on industries that include the fabricated metal product, food, furniture and related product, machinery, nonmetallic mineral product, paper, plastics and rubber, primary metal, transportation equipment, and wood product manufacturing subsectors.
For years, OSHA has been quite active in enforcing the lockout/tagout and machine guarding standards. The agency cited a Georgia tire maker for several serious and repeat violations in 2019 and placed the company in its severe violators enforcement program (SVEP). Employers in the SVEP are subject to mandatory follow-up inspections.
The company failed to develop, document, and utilize a lockout/tagout program, exposing its employees to amputation and caught-in hazards, according to OSHA investigators. Agency inspectors also found the company failed to install machine guarding at several points in the facility or cover rotating shaft couplings.
In 2019, the agency also cited a Lebanon, Missouri, barrel maker for repeat machine guarding violations after the fifth amputation injury in a 14-month period. OSHA also cited the employer for combustible dust, lockout/tagout, and occupational noise violations, proposing penalties of $413,370.
Federal and state investigators often will cite both host employers and staffing agencies for lapses in lockout/tagout compliance. After a temporary worker lost two fingers cleaning dough-rolling machinery at a Los Angeles noodle factory, Cal/OSHA cited both the manufacturer and the staffing agency for lockout/tagout violations and proposed over $300,000 in penalties. Neither employer trained the worker to follow lockout/tagout procedures before cleaning machinery, according to Cal/OSHA.
The purpose of OSHA’s lockout/tagout, or “control of hazardous energy,” standard is to protect workers from burns and crushed, cut, fractured, or lacerated body parts, as well as amputation and electrocution hazards. Under the standard, employers must develop formal practices and procedures necessary to disable machinery or equipment while it is being serviced or maintained.
Other elements of the standard include:
- Instructing all employees who work in an area where lockout/tagout procedures are utilized in the purpose and use of the energy control procedures, especially in understanding the prohibition against restarting or reenergizing machines or equipment that has been locked or tagged out;
- Training all employees authorized to lock out machines or equipment to perform service or maintenance operations to recognize hazardous energy sources in the workplace, the type and magnitude of energy found in the workplace, and the means and methods of isolating and/or controlling energy through the facility’s lockout/tagout procedures;
- Specific procedures for and the limitations of tagout systems; and
- Retraining all employees to maintain proficiency or introduce new sources of hazardous energy installed or lockout/tagout procedures implemented in the facility.
In addition to developing, documenting, implementing, and enforcing lockout/tagout procedures in your facility, you need to ensure your workforce only uses the lockout/tagout devices authorized for the specific equipment or machinery in your facility. Lockout/tagout devices must be durable, standardized, and substantial. Devices must identify the individual who locked out or tagged out a machine or piece of equipment.
You need to ensure that new or overhauled machinery or equipment is capable of being locked out. You need to develop, implement, and enforce an effective tagout program if machinery or equipment is incapable of being locked out.
Despite the news of emerging workplace hazards or possible new federal or state standards, you need to “get back to basics” and ensure your compliance with long-standing standards like HazCom, lockout/tagout, and machine guarding.