July 01, 2009
by Steve Berne
What the heck is up with the California state government, specifically the division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA)? According to OSHA’s Web site, 22 states developed and operate under their own workplace health and safety regulations while other states follow federal OSHA guidelines. Yet only California set dust exposure levels 95% LESS than federal OSHA limits. Why is that?
The federal standard for permissible exposure level (PEL) is 10 mg per cu m throughout an 8-hour shift, yet California set its limit at 0.5 mg per cu m. However, the scientific evidence gathered by the American Bakers Association (ABA), North American Millers Association and the Canadian National Millers Association in no way justified Cal/OSHA’s conclusion, which it reached nearly 10 years ago. Yet that was its conclusion based on the lowest positive sample of "occurrence of sensitization," according to a report sponsored by the agency. According to ABA, "There are concerns that the regulatory ‘process’ on related issues continues to evolve as Cal/OSHA is preparing to propose flour dust as a respiratory sensitizer at any place of employment in the state.
The contemplated proposal could require costly medical surveillance programs."
The 0.5 mg per cu m guideline was proposed in late 1999 and early 2000, and the three industry associations evaluated the study provided to OHSA by the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH). The study cited two research reports, both of which the associations’ post-evaluation found significantly faulty.
ABA was invited to testify regarding these findings in 2006 before the US House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections. The testimony on Capitol Hill was to criticize the ACGIH’s process for developing standards. ABA used the Cal/OSHA dust situation as an example. While the testimony is related, it was not specific to the final action in California; rather, on how Cal/OSHA used the ACGIH information as the basis of its regulation. The hearing was to review the use of nonconsensus standards in workplace health and safety.
During ABA’s testimony, key facts were stated from the report: "Research in this area as reported by independent studies found that sensitization to flour dust did not account for a majority of reported symptoms." This was based on the absence of evidence of flour sensitization in most symptomatic workers. Research findings supported the conclusion that "symptoms were primarily non-allergic, and that flour dust primarily acts as a non-specific irritant rather than as a sensitizer or allergy-causing substance."
ABA further stated that published data pertaining to exposure thresholds for flour-related effects, including sensitization and irritant effects, are very limited. The report concluded that "the accumulated research does not provide scientifically based, appropriately derived support in the areas relevant to exposure threshold determination as provided in the ACGIH document."
What influence will the Obama administration have on this debate? That is hard to tell. On one hand, the new government is all about the working class. That was the basis for its campaign. On the other hand, President Obama is practical and seems to base decisions on fact and not hype. Time will tell, but it is imperative you learn more about this and weigh in, as it could not only cost you in fines from regulatory inspections — as happened recently to a large national baking company at one of its facilities in California — but also in capital from having to redesign mixing and makeup areas of your plant.
This article can also be found in the digital edition of Baking & Snack, July 1, 2009, starting on Page 10. Click here to search that archive.