I had to correct the Texas Tech story last week. The correction illustrates an important point in academic laboratory health and safety: There may be no one overseeing a public university’s health and safety program.
The original paragraphs in Texas Tech Lessons:
The internal TTU investigation identified multiple violations of the university’s chemical hygiene plan (CHP). A CHP is required by the federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration for laboratories that use hazardous chemicals. OSHA sets requirements for what must be covered in a CHP, but it is up to the organization to decide how those requirements are addressed, says Russell W. Phifer, a safety consultant and past-chair of ACS’s Division of Chemical Health & Safety. The organization then must comply with the policies and procedures it establishes. In TTU’s investigation, the university found a lack of training and standard operating procedures, among other deficiencies.
So far, OSHA itself has not investigated the incident. OSHA typically does not get directly involved unless there is a fatality or multiple injuries requiring hospitalization or unless an institution or company has an accident rate that is much higher than comparable establishments, Phifer says. If an employee complains to OSHA, the agency sends a letter to the employer asking for a response to the charges and will investigate if the response is deemed inadequate, Phifer says.
The federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration does not oversee laboratory safety at Texas Tech University because OSHA does not have jurisdiction over public employees. Texas Tech is required by a Texas governor’s executive order to develop and implement a risk management and safety program for its employees and the citizens it serves.
Texas does have a state Office of Risk Management, but spokesman Paul Harris says that the office does not cover the University of Texas, Texas A&M University, or Texas Tech University.
The error highlights a regulatory gap that affects a lot of people: In U.S. states and territories that have not developed their own occupational safety and health programs and continue to rely on federal OSHA coverage, public workers are not protected. Here’s the breakdown:
- States and territories with OSHA-approved plans that cover all workers, public and private: Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, Tennesssee, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, Wyoming
- States and territories with plans that cover only public workers (private workers fall under federal OSHA): Connecticut, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Virgin Islands
- States and territories that fall fully under federal OSHA: Alabama, American Samoa, Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Guam, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Northern Marianas Islands, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Texas, West Virginia, Wisconsin
Last week, OSHA released a report on its evaluation of the state plans.
Some people would probably argue that liability concerns are effective at keeping universities and other public workplaces on their toes and that we don’t need more bureaucracy. Others clearly disagree. The Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board has been lobbying for OSHA coverage of public workers since at least 2007, after it investigated a 2006 incident at a Florida wastewater treatment plant in which two municipal workers were killed after cutting torches ignited methanol vapor. “It is simply inequitable to afford public employees with lesser workplace protections than workers in private industry,” said then-CSB chairman Carolyn W. Merritt in 2007 congressional testimony.