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4th of December 2012

OSHA To Take On Role in Air Quality on Planes

(WSJ) After years of complaints by flight attendants about the air inside some airliner cabins, the Federal Aviation Administration has taken the first step toward allowing government occupational-health and safety officials to begin looking into such allegations.

A draft policy statement released Friday by the FAA opens the door to eventual investigations of air-quality inside aircraft by the Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration, according to the union representing 60,000 flight attendants. "For the first time, it allows OSHA to proactively follow-up on reports" from cabin crew members alleging possible airborne exposure to pollutants or diseases, a union spokeswoman said.

The FAA had long balked at outside review of workplace concerns aboard aircraft. Stretching back nearly four decades, the agency retained sole authority to enact rules covering safety and health issues affecting all airline crews. Friday's tentative agreement with OSHA was prompted partly by a congressional mandate earlier this year to give OSHA authority to oversee some working conditions affecting attendants while they are on aircraft. 

In the proposed agreement, which is subject to public comment, FAA officials said OSHA would gain responsibility for cabin noise standards and other "occupational safety or health standards" not currently covered by FAA rules. The agreement doesn't explicitly mention air quality, but that has been one of the most important concerns raised over many years by labor leaders representing cabin crews.

An FAA spokeswoman didn't have any comment Sunday. 

In a news release Friday, the FAA said its safety regulations generally still would continue to "take precedence," and it plans to develop "procedures to ensure that OSHA does not apply any requirements that could affect aviation safety." 

But in the same release, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said flight attendants could start "to report workplace injury and illness complaints to OSHA for response and investigation." 

In the same release, Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis said the proposed policy shift "will not only enhance the health and safety of flight attendants by connecting them directly with OSHA, but will by extension improve the flying experience of millions of airline passengers." 

Velda Shook, union president of the Association of Flight Attendants, said the agreement seeks to "close this long overdue loophole" blocking occupational-health and safety laws and regulations from protecting cabin crews.

"It's not going to have an immediate impact" on cabin-air quality, said Corey Caldwell, the union spokeswoman. But as part of the agreement, OSHA officials now will have explicit authority to compare workplace complaints by attendants to their health histories and medical records.

More than 20 years ago, the union urged the agency to adopt selected OSHA regulations, with the goal of tracking flight attendants' injuries, controlling the handling of hazardous materials and reducing exposure to toxic and hazardous substances. The FAA rejected that request in 1997, but three years later the leaders of the FAA and OSHA agreed to work toward coordinating enforcement efforts. When that fizzled, the union unsuccessfully sought judicial intervention. The stalemate continued until early 2012, when Congress ordered the FAA to develop a policy extending some of OSHA's health and worker-safety protections to flight attendants on the job.

The draft memorandum of understanding released Friday emphasizes that as future details are worked out between the agencies, the FAA will "retain its authority to preempt application of OSHA requirements" if they ultimately turn out to interfere with air-safety rules and procedures.