Thursday, May 04, 2006

Criminal Negligence: Auto Mechanics Exposed To Asbestos While Feds Fiddle

I'd bet a fair amount of money that if you stopped ten people in the street (a street far away from Washington DC) and told them this story, at least nine of them would say it couldn't happen in 21st century America.


When Washington Senator Patty Murray asked OSHA nominee Ed Foulke at his January 31st confirmation hearing whether he thought it would be a good idea to ban asbestos, Foulke replied that he wasn't aware that the cancer-causing product was used anymore in the United States. Murray sharply corrected him, listing automobile brake pads as one of the many products in which asbestos can still be found.

And the problem of asbestos in brake pads is getting worse. Experts estimate that there has been an 83 percent increase in imports of asbestos brakes and brake material over the past 10 years. Most auto mechanics, however, are just as ignorant about the asbestos threat as the new head of OSHA -- but for the mechanics, ignorance can mean a painful death.

But that's not even the worst part: OSHA scientists are well aware of the growing hazard that auto mechanics face and have prepared an information bulletin. And then, according to Baltimore Sun journalist Andrew Schneider, the Bush administration refused to issue it.
In late 2004, asbestos experts from OSHA's Directorate of Science, Technology and Medicine completed a five-page Safety and Health Information Bulletin. By March 2, 2005, the bulletin had been peer-reviewed, deemed accurate and reviewed by OSHA political appointees, according to documents obtained by The Sun.

OSHA reviewed the proposed warning again with officials of the Office of Management and Budget in August 2005, said two OSHA managers who asked not to be identified.

Some of those at OSHA and at the EPA who were working on the issue say it was at that meeting that the warning was killed. OSHA did not respond to questions about the meeting.

In October 2005, OSHA's [Dan Crane, who oversees asbestos analysis at OSHA's Salt Lake City laboratory] submitted another technical review, supporting release of the bulletin.

OSHA declined to issue a new warning. A spokesman, Al Belsky, said agency officials had concluded that development and publication of a safety and health information bulletin on asbestos in brakes "is not warranted."

The agency issues warnings when it becomes aware of new hazards that need to be brought to the attention of workers and employers, Belsky said. (emphasis added)
Only "new" hazards? It's been twenty years since the Environmental Protection Agency issued the so-called "Gold Book" along with a video that warned auto mechanics about the dangers of asbestos. It's been out of print and the revised version has been promied for years. But "new" hazard, "old" hazard, or whatever -- it still kills, mechanics don't know about it, and OSHA's job is to make sure workers don't get sick (or at least that's what the law says.) Dr. Barry Castleman, a former Baltimore County health officer and a leading researcher on medical and legal issues involving asbestos estimates that thousands of workers die every year from exposure to asbestos from brake pads.

Joel Shufro of the New York Committee on Occupational Safety and Health accurately states that "It borders on criminal negligence for OSHA to have produced a new alert addressed to mechanics but refuse to publish it because it does not conform to a so-called guideline."

on criminal negligence?

So what's going on here? The same old tragic story.
David Michaels, a health and safety official in the Clinton administration, said industry is "calling the shots" at OSHA and EPA "on all changes involving health or safety."

"Except when ordered to by a federal judge, OSHA has stopped issuing regulations or even guidance telling workers how to protect themselves," he said. "It has been that way from the moment President Bush took office. The political appointees continue to place the desire of industry before the safety of workers."
Long time readers of Confined Space may remember back to November 2003 when the lawfirm of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, representing asbesetos manufacturers, petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency "to stop distributing warning booklets, posters and videotapes that give mechanics guidance on the need to protect themselves from asbestos."

The main target in their petition is a thin gold-colored EPA pamphlet titled "Guidance for Preventing Asbestos Disease Among Auto Mechanics." Tens of thousands of copies of the Gold Book and other asbestos warning material have been distributed to schools, garages, auto dealers and unions since they were first published 17 years ago.

For two years in the mid-'80s, the EPA and asbestos experts from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration gathered extensive research on exposure to mechanics from leading government and civilian scientists.

The petition says that the EPA has it all wrong and that brake repair work is safe.

"The continuing availability of the Gold Book, and its alarmist and inflammatory tone continues to hinder a fair-minded assessment of the hazards, if any, imposed to users of asbestos-containing friction products," the petition states.
Dr. David Egilman, a specialist in occupational medicine who has been a consultant for the brake industry and for the families of workers who have died, said that calling the Gold Book "inflammatory" is ludicrous.

"It's the same thing as calling a stop sign inflammatory. It warns people of possible danger. The government warnings do the same thing," he said.
EPA has been promising for at least three year to re-release a revised version of the Gold Book. Latest word is that they hope to have it ready for public comment by this summer.

Meanwhile auto mechanics continue to get exposed while the federal government fiddles....

PS: One more thought. You know how this is administration is so hot on "compliance assistance" -- instead of issuing regulations -- under the thory that if you give employers information, they will naturally do the right thing? Well, here we have a case where there's already an asbestos regulation, all they have to do is educate employers (and employees) about how to implement it for auto mechanics. But can they manage to do that? Apparently not. Hypocrites.

Related Articles

FLASH! Auto Mechanics: Don't Worry, Be Happy. Asbestos is Safe, November 12, 2003

A Seattle Post-Intelligencer article from almost six years ago describing the extent of asbestos contamination in auto repair shops can be found here.