Business, Labor Fight Over Hazmat Handling
By Cindy Skrzycki
Tuesday, July 6, 2004; Page E01
A protracted battle between business and labor that questions which federal agency has jurisdiction over the handling of hazardous material -- after a decade of arguing -- has heated up again.
The disagreement centers on one word and its placement in a 1990 bill. The trouble is over whether Congress meant to say "section" or "subsection" when it was laying out regulatory responsibility in the Hazardous Materials Transportation Uniform Safety Act. Business says it is a typographical error. Labor says the wording is unmistakably clear.
The debate is alive again because congressional conferees are trying to iron out a section of the federal highway bill that addresses hazmat oversight.
The clash involves responsibility for hazmat oversight by the Department of Transportation vis-à-vis the Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Business reads the legislation to say that OSHA should supervise only a small section of the law, the "subsection," which has to do mostly with training. Labor reads the same law to say that the DOT cannot preempt OSHA from protecting workers who handle hazardous material, including equipping them with protective gear.
In the past, the fight has held up reauthorization of DOT's Research and Special Programs Administration, which oversees hazardous-material handling. Union officials fear the same thing will happen this time. Congressional aides working on the highway bill said the hazmat provisions, which include new training for railroad employees and longer retention of shipping papers, are likely to survive if the entire bill gets approved.
For workers and their employers, where the line is drawn is important.
There are some 800,000 shipments of hazardous material daily. Some 40,000 businesses are involved in transporting this material, and they employ thousands of workers who come in contact with it. Last year, there were 15,355 incidents involving materials such as poisonous gas, flammable solids and combustible liquids. There were 14 major injuries and eight deaths, according to the Transportation Department.
Unions say the law gives OSHA authority to oversee materials training, handling, registration and motor carrier safety.
According to OSHA records, most of the agency's involvement has been focused on inspections at freight terminals where the materials are moved around. Over the last decade, the safety agency has done 716 inspections at freight terminals -- not all of them related to hazardous material-related complaints. Based on those inspections, OSHA issued about 700 citations for violations of hazmat rules, such as those requiring protective equipment for employees.
Under its broadest legal authority, OSHA can go into almost any workplace. But if another federal agency, in this case the DOT, has staked out the regulatory territory, OSHA is usually preempted from acting.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company