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OSHA Workers’ Rights: Updates for 2020

By Heather Kerrigan | Mar 23, 2020

Each year, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) proposes, updates and implements regulations aimed at keeping job sites safe. These changes govern OSHA workers' rights and help ensure your members are protected at work.

Here are some of the rules that could affect your members in 2020.

Beryllium Exposure Limits

Beryllium is a commonly used metal found in everything from spot welding electrodes to spacecraft. Prolonged exposure can be dangerous, potentially resulting in chronic conditions like lung cancer and either chronic or acute beryllium disease. OSHA is considering a reduction in the allowable exposure limit and is expected to release a final regulation soon. If implemented, the change may require members at risk of exposure to wear new or additional protective gear. It could also impact their work duties or schedule to limit their exposure during each eight-hour shift. The revised rule will protect the 62,000 workers exposed to beryllium and could prevent dozens of new cases of beryllium-related diseases and deaths each year.

Crystalline Silica Exposure Limits

Crystalline silica is a common material found in concrete, sand, brick and stone. Its particles become airborne and breathable when the substance is drilled, crushed, cut or ground. Breathing in crystalline silica has the potential to cause a variety of chronic diseases, including lung cancer, kidney disease, silicosis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. OSHA is currently reviewing information not included in its existing standard, such as exposure control measures and tasks or equipment that cause exposure. OSHA is expected to decide in 2020 whether it should update its current standard. If the organization opts to update, workers might need to wear new protective gear or otherwise limit exposure.

While that review is ongoing, OSHA instituted a revised National Emphasis Program (NEP) aimed at better protecting workers who may be exposed to crystalline silica. The program enforces a lower allowable exposure limit to help prevent workers from high levels of crystalline silica exposure for long periods of time — or, if exposure does occur, works to ensure that better protective measures are instituted in the future.

Respirator Fit Testing

In late 2019, OSHA issued a final rule on testing requirements to ensure respirators fit properly, adding two new fit testing options to the four already in existence. The rule gives employers additional tools to check that members' respirators are effective at protecting them from dangerous airborne materials. Under the rule, members might expect that they will have new respirator options that offer similar or enhanced levels of protection.

Climbing and Fall Protection

OSHA made corrections to its standards regulating walking-working surfaces and fall protection equipment. Specifically, the organization clarified that ladder handholds must extend a minimum of 42 inches — as opposed to having to extend exactly 42 inches — above the top of the access level or landing platform served by the ladder. OSHA also made a correction to the language governing personal fall protection systems, ensuring that the D-rings, snap hooks, carabiners and other similar products can withstand a minimum load of 3,600 pounds without the gate separating from the connector nose by more than 0.125 inches. These updates should help ensure that everyone who climbs to or works at elevated heights has the safety equipment necessary to provide stability and prevent deadly falls.

Throughout the year, the union and the employers it works with should review OSHA regulations to see what changes the organization is considering or implementing. It's important to communicate this information to any members responsible for reporting possible hazards or violations before they become a serious threat to safety. Remind your members of the OSHA workers' rights afforded to them, what to look out for and how to report a potential violation. For workers exposed to breathable materials in particular, remind your membership of the symptoms of overexposure, when to seek medical attention and where to find details on their health insurance plan benefits.

Heather Kerrigan started her career in journalism at Governing magazine, reporting on state and local politics and policy, with a specific focus on public workforce, environment, health care, education and technology issues. Prior to co-founding River Horse Communications, Heather offered freelance editorial services to a variety of outlets, including serving as volume editor and lead author for SAGE Publications' Historic Documents series and editor-in-chief of The Kanter Journal. Heather is the author of the book Retire Rich With Your 401(k) Plan. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from The George Washington University.