OSHA, EPA work to promote safe environmental management

April 30, 2014

For more than two decades, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has worked with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to improve worker safety at Superfund sites, where teams are working hard to remediate the contaminated land. Much has been learned during that time. According to a recent post on the OSHA website, the agencies have focused on sites that use incineration as part of the cleaning process. Audits of this practice have uncovered a number of deficiencies.

For example, the post notes that one major problem has been ineffective management of safety and health functions. Four of the ten sites that have been audited had problems that "were directly attributable to a lack of knowledge and experience among on-site safety and health personnel." In addition, another four sites had issues because, for one reason or another, on-site personnel were not able to exercise their best judgment when it came to making decisions about health and safety issues.

"OSHA audit teams found several instances in which on-site safety and health personnel had recommended PPE downgrades based on site exposure monitoring data," the post read. "The downgrades were delayed, however, because contract language was inflexible with regard to PPE requirements or because off-site safety and health decision makers had not responded to the recommendations." 

The news source added: "The delays placed workers in unnecessarily high levels of PPE with increased risk of heat stress, restricted vision, impaired communication, and increased fatigue."

The agencies have also found that the measuring and documentation of employee exposure to hazardous materials at Superfund sites leave much to be desired. Sometimes, the real-time monitoring techniques that are used to record contamination do not even include heavy metals and pesticides that are known to cause health hazards.

Sometimes, the problem is not a lack of a safety plan, but rather the fact that the existing plan is not written well enough to be functional. According to the post, the teams have found that in many cases, remediation is proceeding according to plans that have not been updated to reflect the latest conditions. Some plans included "[g]eneral statements about good safety and health practice rather than detailed descriptions of actual site safety and health practices." Obviously, such lax information can only be so useful in cases where safety is an issue.

So far, the solutions developed by OSHA and the EPA involve the appointment of specific health and safety personnel who can monitor the situation and take charge of specific issues that need to be addressed. Much of this work will involve the quantification of certain safety categories so records are better able to track worker exposure. By involving environmental consultants in the process, stakeholders in Superfund remediation can ensure that steps are taken to promote safe environmental management.