The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s regulatory agenda for the first half of 2010 contains some major construction rules, including a long-awaited final regulation on cranes and derricks and a proposed rule on crystalline-silica exposure. Both regulations are expected to be issued by July.

Construction industry groups and labor unions say they expect OSHA to be more active on the regulatory front under Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and new OSHA chief David Michaels, confirmed to the post on Dec. 3. But industry organizations say they find the agency’s shift toward enforcement from cooperative alliances troubling, although not unexpected in a Democratic administration.

“I think the people in place [at OSHA] are genuinely committed to worker safety and health,” says Brad Sant, the American Road and Transportation Builders Association’s vice president for safety and education. But he adds, “If OSHA is to be viewed as effective, it needs to be viewed as an agency that does have a strong hand…but also is a partner when [companies] need help….I think the cooperative programs have gone a long way toward building trust.”

First on OSHA’s construction agenda, released last month, is issuing a final version of the much-anticipated cranes-and-derricks rule. Construction groups almost universally say they welcome a federal regulation in an industry that has seen too many crane fatalities and accidents in recent years. Some industry officials, however, have reservations about how the new rule will deal with certifying crane operators, as well as language that holds “controlling entities” liable for crane accidents. “Our concern is that the controlling-entity provision in the standard really expands the liability” of general contractors, says Rob Matuga, National Association of Home Builders’ assistant vice president for labor, safety and health policy.

ARTBA’s Sant notes that the cranes-and-derricks rule will add some standardization to what is now a fragmented system for certifying crane operators. In the absence of a federal OSHA rule, several states have developed their own requirements, leading to a patchwork of regulations across the country, he says.

Travis Parsons, the laborers union’s Health and Safety Fund’s senior safety and health specialist, says OSHA’s delay in producing a cranes-and-derrick standard has held up the development of other standards. “They’ve been stagnant for about eight years,” he says.

OSHA Priorities in 2010
New Record-Keeping Requirements for Ergonomic Injuries
Proposed rule expected in January 2010
Cranes and Derricks
Final rule expected by July 2010
Crystalline Silica
Notice of proposed rule-making expected in July 2010
Confined Spaces in Construction
Analyze comments from 11/28/2007, proposal expected in March 2010
sources: Federal Register, Occupational Safety and Health Administration

Moreover, Parsons says he is eager to see OSHA issue a standard on exposure to airborne crystalline silica, a leading cause of silicosis. But some industry groups are concerned the agency could propose lowering the permissible exposure limit (PEL) for silica to 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air, from the current 100. Chris Williams, the Associated Builders and Contractors’ director of safety, says lowering the PEL to 50 would be “not just burdensome to small and medium-sized contractors but to large contractors as well.”

OSHA also plans to issue a proposed rule requiring contractors to record ergonomic injuries in their OSHA 300 logs. Some sources say the proposal could be a first step toward revisiting an ergonomics standard in the construction industry. “My gut instinct is that…this is a precursor to some sort of rule-making,” Williams says. Sant adds, “I think they are getting their house in order so they can move forward with a standard.”