Industry Pans Oil Mist Lawsuit


Industry representatives said during the past week that a lawsuit filed by unions seeking to toughen oil mist exposure limits is based on unfounded claims about the dangers posed by such exposures.

At the same time, industry and union sources agreed that exposure levels encountered by factory workers have dropped significantly in recent years. Still, they predicted that the trend will not keep the sides from battling each other in the courtroom.

The United Auto Workers and United Steelworkers of America sued U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao Oct. 21, asking a federal appeals court to order the Occupational Safety and Health Administration – part of the Department of Labor – to lower the existing cap on worker exposure to mists of metalworking fluids. The department has not responded to requests for comment.

The current standard – 5 milligrams of oil mist per cubic meter of airduring an eight-hour day – was adopted in 1971. The lawsuit filed by the unions asserts that such levels can cause a variety of health problems, including cancer, dermatitis and hypersensitivity pneumonitis – a potentially serious inflammation of the lungs. The suit does not propose a specific limit, although the unions have in the past pushed for a standard of 0.5 mg/m3.

OEM and lubricant industry representatives contended there is little if any basis for unions claims about the health effects of mist exposure. Studies used to bolster arguments that mist can cause cancer are based on exposures prior to 1964, they said, adding that fluids used at that time are not used today. These sources also maintain that hypersensitivity pneumonitis – the suit cited 16 outbreaks since 1993 – is extremely rare when viewed against the number of hours factory employees work each year. The unions cite dermatitis as among the health risks, they say, but that condition is not caused by oil mist.

When you break it down, theres not much there, said one industry source, who spoke on condition that he not be identified. I think [the unions] exaggerate the health risks a little.

Industry sources said the unions also ignore the role of fluid maintenance, saying that controlling numbers of microbes in fluids can play a big part in avoiding health problems.

When you look at the investigations into these outbreaks, they typically find that general housekeeping in the plants has been poor, said Jeffrey L. Leiter, counsel for the Independent Lubricant Manufacturers Association. Maintenance plays an important role.

Frank Mirer, director of the UAWs Department of Health and Safety, insisted the unions claims are well-founded and supported by findings of other organizations, such as National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.

I think the evidence speaks for itself, he said.

Individuals on both sides of the issue agreed that the distance separating their camps is not as great as suggested by the current 5 mg/m3 standard and the 0.5 mg/m3 limit that unions have sought. The UAW, all noted, already has contracts obliging automakers to adhere to the 0.5 mg/m3 limit on new machinery and to lower exposure levels for existing equipment to 1.0 mg/m3.

Five-point-zero does not reflect the reality today, Mirer acknowledged.

Still, Mirer said progress has been too slow and that the unions have evidence that the frequency of health problems from mist exposure is increasing.

We expect that this [lawsuit] will eventually lead to some action on the part of OSHA and that when that happens, manufacturers will meet the new limit by the time it take effect, he said. It may take years before that happens, but years is better than never.

Industry sources said manufacturers will almost surely ask to join the suit to try to block the unions case. Leiter said the case raises some really meaty legal issues concerning OSHAs ability to set its own priorities while working with limited resources.

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