Unions Take Feds to Court Over Factory Air

October 21, 2003 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - Two unions have gone to court in an effort to force the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to set tougher clean air standards in US factories to deal with a problem that unions say could prove fatal to workers.

The United Auto Workers (UAW) and the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) filed the suit in federal court in an effort to force OSHA to issue standards reducing the permissible exposure to metalworking fluids in US. workplaces. “The UAW petitioned OSHA to take action on metalworking fluids 10 years ago,” said UAW President Ron Gettelfinger. “Since then, millions of factory workers have been exposed to these hazardous chemicals. Tragically, some have developed asthma, pulmonary fibrosis or other severe respiratory ailments, while others have cancer because of the metalworking fluid mists they’ve been forced to breathe at work.”

According to the unions, more than a million workers are exposed each year to metalworking fluids, which are widely used in the manufacture of autos, farm equipment, aircraft and other metal products. Breathing mist from metalworking fluids can cause severe respiratory ailments, including asthma and hypersensitivity pneumonitis, an inflammation of the lungs that frequently leads to hospital stays, the unions claim. Continued exposure can lead to pulmonary fibrosis, or permanent scarring of the lungs, which can be fatal.

The unions said there have been 16 recorded outbreaks of hypersensitivity pneumonitis in US factories since the UAW first petitioned OSHA in 1993 to reduce worker exposure to metalworking fluids.

One recent outbreak, according to the union, occurred at a TRW automotive plant in Mount Vernon, Ohio, in January 2001, after several UAW members were admitted to intensive care with lung disease. By November of that year, 107 workers were placed on medical restrictions due to respiratory problems, and 37 suffered long-term disability.

According to a history of the case provided by the unions, shortly after the UAW petitioned OSHA to reduce worker exposure to metalworking fluids in 1993, the agency identified the fluids as a regulatory priority. In a procedure that has been used only twice in the agency’s history, OSHA appointed a Metalworking Fluids Standards Advisory Committee, including labor, management and public health representatives.

In July 1999, after collecting “a substantial body of evidence” about metalworking fluids, associated health hazards, and economically and technically feasible means of reducing worker exposure, and after months of public meetings, the unions said the Standards Advisory Committee voted to recommend that OSHA adopt the standard of 0.5 milligram per cubic meter of air for both oil and synthetic metalworking fluids.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act states that within 60 days of such a recommendation by a duly appointed Standards Advisory Committee, OSHA is required to issue a standard or to state reasons for not doing so. Four years after the Metalworking Fluids Standards Advisory Committee made its recommendation, OSHA withdrew the new rule from active consideration.