Top 5 Occupational Safety & Health Issues to Watch in 2017

1.  New Drug & Alcohol Clearinghouse

The Federal Motor Carrier Administration (FMCSA) is establishing a CDL Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse, which is a new database that will list violations of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) drug and alcohol testing programs for holders of CDLs.  Such violations will include positive drug or alcohol tests, refusals, and other drug and alcohol violations for drivers required to have a CDL.  Information regarding when a driver completes the return-to-duty processes will also be recorded in the Clearinghouse.  This rule will require FMCSA-regulated employers, Medical Review Officers (MROs), Substance Abuse Professionals (SAPs), Consortia/Third Party Administrators (C/TPAs), and other service agents to report regulatory violations to the Clearinghouse by current and prospective employees.

Employers who currently work with a TPA should make sure that their vendor is aware of this new regulation and has the processes in place to meet the needs of this new Clearinghouse.  For employers who manage programs in-house, now may be a good time to evaluate the effectiveness of an external provider who can drive compliance and ensure proper reporting based on this new rule.

2.  Reducing Serious Injuries and Fatalities

Serious injuries and fatalities are receiving increased attention as they still plague many organizations with otherwise better-than-average injury rates.  Total U.S. workplace fatalities rose in 2015. The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries shows the number of fatal work injuries was the highest annual total since 2008. The census finds that 4,836 workers died from work-related injuries in 2015.

Injury and illness prevention programs are encouraged or required in many states throughout the country.  According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), key elements within these programs are management leadership, worker participation, hazard identification and assessment, hazard prevention and control, education and training, and program evaluation and improvement.  Such programs may include internal corporate safety initiatives, onsite clinic presence, and/or 24/7 injury triage hotlines.  OSHA believes that using such programs will result in fewer employees suffering injuries, illnesses and fatalities. 

3.  Managing Employee Mental Health Issues

According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, about one in five adults in the U.S. – 43.8 million – experiences mental illness in a given year.  About one in 25 suffers a debilitating mental disorder in a given year that seriously interferes with their day-to-day lives.  In many workplaces, mental illness remains stigmatized and goes unreported.  Only about 40 percent of those suffering seek medical attention, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

An employee cannot effectively perform their duties if they are faced with stress from an overwhelming personal or lifestyle situation.  Furthermore, it is often noted that employees who are out of work for injury or illness become more depressed over time and have a more difficult time returning to work in full, productive capacity.

If none exists, employers may want to look at implementing an Employee Assistance Program.  For organizations with an EAP in place, employers may want to work with their EAP team to identify strategies to identify at-risk employees and address these concerns proactively.  Employee Assistance Programs can offer organizations services ranging from telephonic or in-person counseling, employee/manager trainings, organizational development, and much more that ultimately improve the health and well-being of both employees and the organization as a whole.

4.  Compliance with OSHA’s New Silica Rule

In order to curb lung cancer, silicosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and kidney disease in America’s workers, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has issued a final rule to limit workers’ exposure to respirable crystalline silica.  There are two standards within the rule—one for Construction and one for General Industry and Maritime.  The final rule specifies requirements for employee exposure assessments, exposure controls, medical surveillance, respiratory protection, hazard communication, and recordkeeping.  It also establishes a new permissible exposure limit (PEL) of 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air as respirable crystalline silica averaged over an 8-hour work day.

Over 2.3 million workers are exposed to respirable crystalline silica in their workplace.  This common mineral is found in many naturally occurring and man-made materials used at construction sites.  Materials like sand, concrete, brick, block, stone and mortar contain crystalline silica.  OSHA estimates that this rule will save over 600 lives and prevent more than 900 new cases of silicosis annually.

This new rule involves several requirements, including but not limited to:

  • Conducting initial exposure assessments for employees to determine if exposures for different job functions exceed the PEL or action level.  Periodic sampling is required for employees that have exposures above the PEL (every 3 months) or the action level (every 6 months).

  • Developing and implementing engineering and work practice controls to reduce employee exposure to or below the PEL.

  • Offering triennial medical surveillance exams to employees exposed to levels over the action levels for 30 days or more per year.

  • Complying with additional training and recordkeeping requirements.

The Crystalline Silica Rule became effective on June 23, 2016, but the requirements will not become effective until June 23, 2018.  This allows two years for facilities to conduct exposure assessments and implement administrative and engineering controls.  Furthermore, medical surveillance is required to be in place for employees above the PEL for 30 days or more by June 23, 2018, and medical surveillance is not required to be in place until June 23, 2020 for employees above the action level for 30 days or more.

Organizations that do not have a silica program in place today should identify their need and work with occupational health providers to implement this program as soon as possible in order to meet the compliance deadlines.  For organizations that already have a solid silica program, HSE individuals and their occupational health teams should ensure that protocols are updated to meet the changing regulation.

5. Shift to Risk-Based Assessments and Management Systems

Risk resonates more in executive suites than safety does.  Moving into 2017, Occupational Safety & Health employees will find themselves spending more time assessing the likelihood and severity of risks (hazards), and working to mitigate that risk in any way possible.

As business becomes more global and dispersed, and as occupational health programs become more complex due to corporate and regulatory compliance changed, organizations should consider utilizing the support of outsourced occupational health providers.  Robust occupational health providers will be able to provide organizations with best-in-class occupational medical programs that include defendable regulatory expertise and innovative technology for tracking and reporting.  Ultimately, these vendors help companies drive compliance, mitigate risk, and easily report that effectiveness upline.