What am I prattling on about? After threatening to suspend an OSHA staffer for not weakening an recently published OSHA bulletin for auto mechanics detailing the hazards of asbestos in brakes, Andrew Schneider in the Baltimore Sun reports that OSHA has backed down. OSHA head Ed Foulke has announced that OSHA scientist Ira Wainless would not be suspended and after "a thorough review" the bulletin will stay on the OSHA website.
Last week, after several hours of negotiations between a labor union and OSHA officials, the agency signed an agreement to withdraw its proposed suspension of Wainless, who refused to be interviewed.One would hope so. Of course, OSHA's decision doesn't end the controversy:
"It's as it should be. Wainless will not be punished for following the best science and the law," said Eleanor Lauderdale, executive vice president of Local 12 of the American Federation of Government Employees, AFL-CIO, which had challenged the proposed suspension. "He stood up for the safety of workers, as is the job of everyone in OSHA."
"There is no proof of asbestos in brakes ever harming those working on or around them. Not a single case has ever been documented. Not one," Michael Palese, a spokesman for Daimler-Chrysler Corp.'s legal communications, told The Sun last month.Meanwhile, former OSHA head John Henshaw (2001-2004) is under investigation to determine whether he violated federal ethics policies by attempting to influence agency action on the brake warning within two years of leaving office. Henshaw, who is a consultant for industry, had e-mailed OSHA science director Ruth McCully, expressing concern about the bulletin and saying that it should be pulled until changes were made.
He added that 18 "comprehensive" studies have been done by "top scientists" that showed the absence of danger from asbestos in brakes.
Worker-safety specialists tell the opposite story.
Richard Lemen, former acting director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and a former assistant U.S. surgeon general, and other public health experts have presented case studies and medical records of scores of brake and friction-material workers who were reportedly sickened or killed by asbestos-related diseases.
Trying to stay above the fray are the three agencies involved with asbestos safety issues -- OSHA, the EPA and NIOSH. Their physicians and scientists say that asbestos exposure can cause asbestosis, cancer and mesothelioma, and have said so for years.
"Nothing has changed. We consider asbestos to be a health hazard regardless of its source," said Joe Burkhart, deputy director of the Division of Respiratory Disease Studies for NIOSH, which does worker health and safety investigations under the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"EPA's policy hasn't changed in that we believe exposure to asbestos fiber is still harmful," said Wendy Cleland-Hamnett, deputy director of the EPA's Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics.
OSHA echoed that view.
Henshaw told The Sun on Thursday that he had done nothing wrong and that his e-mail suggesting changes in the brake warning was "my own idea" and "was not undertaken on behalf of anyone but myself."Yeah John, whatever.
- OSHA Pressures Scientist To Weaken Asbestos Warning, November 20, 2006
- Criminal Negligence: Auto Mechanics Exposed To Asbestos While Feds Fiddle, May 4, 2006
- 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.