Unions Sue to Lower Oil Mist Limits


The United Auto Workers and the United Steelworkers of America yesterday sued U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, seeking to force the federal government to set more stringent limits on employee exposure to metalworking fluids.

In filing the Oct. 21 suit in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia, the unions complained that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration – part of the Labor Department – has for the past decade ignored calls to reduce caps on oil mist exposure permitted in factories.

OSHA has failed miserably in its responsibility to protect American workers, UAW President Ron Gettelfinger said. Our lawsuit with the steelworkers seeks to right this wrong, and offer our members and other workers who are exposed to these chemicals the protection they deserve.

Officials at the Labor Department could not be reached for comment yesterday.

The existing standard on oil mist, which was adopted in 1971, permits workers to be exposed to 5 milligrams of oil mist per cubic meter of airduring an eight-hour day.

The UAW has complained for years that exposure to metalworking fluids and fluid mistcan cause a variety of health problems, including cancer – claims that have been disputed by manufacturers and fluid suppliers. Since 1993, the suit said, there have been 16 recorded outbreaks in U.S. factories of hypersensitivity pneumonitis, a potentially serious inflammation of the lungs, which the unions attribute to fluid mist exposure. The suit highlighted a 2001 case at a TRW automotive plant in Mount Vernon, Ohio, where 107 workers developed respiratory problems, including 37 who suffered long-term disability. Despite those problems, the suit said, an OSHA inspection found mist exposure levels at the plant acceptable.

The unions suit said its arguments have been supported by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. In 1998, NIOSH concluded that the existing limit exposes workers to serious health hazards. It recommended a standard of 0.5 mg/m3 for both oil-based and synthetic fluids. In 1999, an advisory committee appointed by OSHA endorsed the same standard.

According to the suit, the Occupational Safety and Health Act requires OSHA to follow recommendations of such committees within 60 days or to state its reasons for not doing so. In this case, the suit said, OSHA took no action and is no longer actively considering the recommendation.

This is an egregious example of a public rulemaking process that has been obstructed by backroom industry lobbying,” said Leo Gerard, president of the steelworkers union. It is way past time for OSHA to stand up to the industry lobbyists who don’t care how many workers suffer from exposure to metalworking fluids.

Related Topics

Market Topics