Likes, Tweets, and other ways to navigate the netherworld of agency regulations
Every laboratory manager and company executive has had these thoughts at some point: “Another regulation. OMG. What do they want now? Will the government ever leave us alone? How am I ever going to get anything done?” Admit it. Haven’t you felt buried in regulations at some time in your career? But face it, government agencies and regulations are not going away. Perhaps, if we lived in a utopia and every employer and corporation did everything they could to protect workers and the environment, we wouldn’t need any regulations. Unfortunately, that is not the reality of the world we live in.
The reality is that in recent years we have seen a huge proliferation of federal, state, and local laws and regulations that affect businesses, especially those in the technical and scientific arenas. With the rapid growth and intense competition in the research areas of genetically modified organisms, recombinant DNA, cancer agents, and nanomaterial, to name a few, we have seen a corresponding increase in the number of vast and complex regulations and the creation of new agencies as governmental oversight tries to keep pace with technology and scientific developments.
The big two
So, we see there is a plethora of government agencies that we may have to deal with, depending on our institution’s research focus or the company’s operations. These might include the Department of Agriculture, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Food and Drug Administration, Department of Homeland Security, National Institutes of Health, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and Health and Human Services, to name a few of the biggest players. However, to distill things down to the essential, we would venture to say that 90 percent of all business and institutional regulatory dealings will involve two main agencies: the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The Occupational Safety and Health Act1 and thus the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was created by President Nixon in 1970, in response to intense public outcry regarding worker deaths and injuries. OSHA’s mission is to “ensure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women by setting and enforcing standards and by providing training, outreach, education and assistance.”2 The ultimate goal of OSHA is to prevent tragedies like the Texas City Disaster,3 where the detonation of more than 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer killed 581 and injured more than 5,000 while destroying the seaport in 1947. Granted, OSHA has had a lot to tackle, dealing with everything from asbestos to Yersinia pestis. Yet given the very recent West Chemical and Fertilizer Company explosion that leveled a small Texas town, killing 15 and injuring 200 in April 2013,4 we see that even after forty-plus years of OSHA we still have a long way to go when it comes to protecting workers and the public.
Similarly, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was started under President Nixon in 1970; it was created with the signing of the National Environmental Policy Act. The EPA’s mission is to simply “protect human health and the environment.”5 In order to accomplish this, the agency develops and enforces regulations protecting the air, water, land, and endangered species. The agency has worked diligently to identify, clean up, and prevent damage from sites like the Love Canal,6 where Hooker Chemical dumped 21,000 tons of toxic waste between 1942 and 1953, and the Big River Mine Tailings7 site in Missouri, where St. Joe Minerals Corporation disposed of 50,000 cubic yards of lead mine tailings from 1929 to 1958. Even so, as with OSHA, after forty-plus years of environmental protection we still have tragedies like the 2010 BP-Deepwater Horizon disaster, where an explosion and fire on the offshore drilling platform killed 11 workers, injured another 16, sank the platform, and allowed oil to spew into the Gulf of Mexico for 87 days, causing one of the worst environmental disasters in our nation’s history. 8
How do we comply and stay current?
Our long and storied past of environmental and safety disasters solidifies the fact that government regulation and oversight are not going away anytime soon. According to Robin Fray Carey, posting on Social Media Today, “Nothing better demonstrates the ongoing need for continued government oversight than the recent explosions in the Gulf, preceded spectacularly, with even more fatalities, by BP’s Texas City disaster in 2005.”9 Therefore, we should only expect that regulations will continue to multiply and the list of laws affecting research laboratories and associated business activities will grow longer.
As illustration of this fact, consider the summary table of just the OSHA and EPA regulations taken from the 1995 edition of Prudent Practices in the Laboratory.10 It lists 38 separate regulations and standards most laboratories deal with on a regular basis.
The average laboratory manager cannot possibly maintain knowledge of and familiarity with all these regulations. Larger institutions will most certainly have a specialized department of environmental health and safety (EH&S) professionals serving as in-house consultants, regulators, or resources. But small to mid-level facilities that do not have such a department probably require the laboratory managers or even individual researchers to seek advice from EH&S professionals at sister or companion institutions, hire private EH&S consultants, or contact regulatory agencies directly for support and guidance.
No matter how your organization has decided to deal with regulations, it is very important that the institution, whether academic or corporate or even governmental research, maintains compliance. Noncompliance with environmental, health, and safety regulations can result in serious civil penalties (fines up to $25,000 per day per offense) as well as criminal charges. Violation of environmental, health, and safety rules also poses unnecessary risks and endangers employees and the surrounding communities. Furthermore, should this information “get out” and reach the public, the institution’s reputation and commitment toward environmental health and safety will be damaged, thus exposing the entity to serious economic repercussions.
Although keeping up with regulations and maintaining compliance seems daunting, there are new technologies available to assist and support your efforts. We are referring to the use of social media on the Internet. The savvy lab manager or researcher will enhance his or her success and reduce the time needed with efficient use of these platforms. Beware, however, the regulators can and are using these same tools to help accomplish their missions as well.
What is social media?
Social media refers to media websites of a social nature; Internet-based sites where communities of people create, share, and discuss information and ideas. Social media platforms run on Web-based servers, allowing users to generate and “post” content that is read, shared, discussed, and built on by others. They promote interaction by engaging users to create content, participate in discussions, and comment on each other’s postings. Depending on interest, they are used by the public in general or by small, focused user groups devoted to a specific topic.
The benefits of social media include:
- Allowing the use of more than one type of content alternative; i.e., they embrace a wide variety of formats, including text, video, photos, audio, PDF files, and even PowerPoint presentations.
- Allowing cross-platform interaction through sharing, email, and feeds.
- Versatility and ease of access with many types of devices, from desktop computers, laptops, and netbooks to tablets and smartphones.
- Stimulating and encouraging communication and engagement by taking place in real time or over time and providing one-to-one, one-to-many, or many-to-many interactions.
- Enhancing and expediting the dissemination of information by the sheer speed and breadth of the different platforms.
Social media, by its nature, can have an enormous impact on both sides of the regulatory compliance equation. Social media are used by both those in the regulated community and, more and more, the regulators themselves. OSHA’s use of social media is an excellent example. In a recent interview, Dr. David Michaels, as the assistant secretary of labor and the head of OSHA, stated that he is a believer in “sunshine being the best disinfectant.”9 Putting that disinfectant to good use, OSHA now publishes information via social media press releases, revealing companies and their violations. On the flip side, OSHA is also “virtually” rewarding companies with good safety and compliance records as well as working with the National Safety Council to improve the distribution of best practice information.
We can see from OSHA’s example the power of social media and the many ways it can be used. Here are a few other examples:
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides seasonal health and safety tips, such as information on influenza, as well as facts from their latest research on cancer and other diseases.
- The Environmental Protection Agency tweets on how you can get involved in their strategic plan for climate change, find the latest information for your state, or learn about the latest innovative water technology.
- The Department of Homeland Security allows people to find overseas travel alerts, check terrorism alerts, or engage with others on their cyber security blog.
The possibilities are endless. By using social media tools, you can focus your interests and stay current on the latest facts, changes in regulations, and any alerts or warnings that might be announced.
The rapidly expanding social media explosion is not without its drawbacks. The openness of the platforms raises questions regarding the reliability and trustworthiness of the posted information. More important, it presents new challenges for government agencies and employers to develop and enforce policies on their use. The overall health and evolution of society depends on transparency, accountability, and trust in our leaders to make decisions that protect the public health and environment. These decisions must be based on good, unbiased, objective science that is unaffected by political or commercial influences.
Government scientists provide critical expertise, and strong communication policies ensure that good scientific information reaches those who need it. To this end, the Union of Concerned Scientists recently published a follow-up report grading government agency transparency and communication policies.11 Agency policies were graded on six critical points: clearness and consistency, protectiveness of scientific free speech, safeguards against abuse, consistency with legal requirements, openness and timeliness, and dealing with misconduct and disputes. It is worth a read. And while you are there, you should take a look at their model media policy.12
1. Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. United States Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Washington, DC. 1970. http://www. osha.gov/pls/oshaweb/owasrch.search_form?p_doc_type=oshact
2. About OSHA. United States Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Washington, DC. 2013. https://www.osha.gov/about.html
3. Texas City Disaster. Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, San Francisco, CA. December 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Texas_City_disaster
4. West Fertilizer Plant’s Hazards Eluded Regulators for Nearly 30 Years. Caroline Fairchild, Huffington Post, 22 April, 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/22/ west-fertilizer_n_3134202.html?utm_hp_ref=tw
5. Our Mission and What We Do. United States Environmental Protection Agency. Washington, DC. 2013. http://www2.epa.gov/aboutepa/our-mission-and-whatwe- do
6. Love Canal. Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, San Francisco, CA. December 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Love_Canal
7. Red, White and Deadly: 8 of the Worst American Superfund Sites. Kelly Zhou, Takepart, Participant Media. Los Angeles, CA. 2013. http://www.takepart.com/photos/ worst-superfund-sites/big-river-mine-tailings--st-joe-minerals-corpmissouri
8. Deepwater Horizon Investigation. British Petroleum. September 2010. http://www. bp.com/liveassets/bp_internet/globalbp/globalbp_uk_english/incident_response/ STAGING/local_assets/downloads_pdfs/Deepwater_Horizon_Accident_Investigation_ static_presentation.pdf
9. A Federal Agency Looks to Social Media: An Interview with David Michaels of OSHA. Robin Fray Carey, Social Media Today. November 2010. http://socialmediatoday. com/robin-carey/233362/federal-agency-looks-social-media-interview-davidmichaels-osha
10. Prudent Practices in the Laboratory. National Academies Press. Washington, DC. 1995. http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=4911&page=199
11. Grading Government Transparency. Union of Concerned Scientists. Cambridge, MA. March 2013. http://www.ucsusa.org/assets/documents/scientific_integrity/ grading-government-transparency-report.pdf
12. Grading Government Transparency – Model Media Policy. Union of Concerned Scientists. Cambridge, MA. March 2013. http://www.ucsusa.org/assets/documents/scientific_ integrity/ucs-model-media-policy.pdf