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For worker advocate, latest regulatory agenda diminishes hope

April 1, 2012

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The recent move by OSHA under the Obama administration to delay the development of several standards may have more to do with politics than keeping workers safe.

Standards for beryllium, diacetyl and combustible dust have been moved to “long-term actions” status in the latest regulatory agenda. An OSHA spokesperson told me work was continuing on the standards, but the agency currently was not projecting a next action. The regulatory agenda lists the next step in the rules’ promulgation process as “undetermined.”

“My sense is that this is someone higher up in the Obama administration trying to limit the number of rules being pushed forward to sort of pre-empt Republican accusations of overregulation,” said Justin Feldman, worker health and safety advocate for the Congress Watch division of Public Citizen, a Washington-based nonprofit consumer rights organization.

He makes a convincing argument. The remaining candidates at press time for the Republican presidential nomination have blasted the Obama administration for its regulatory policy, some calling it “oppressive” while others claim it is a “burden.”

Faced with such criticism during hard financial times, it would be politically unwise during an election year for Obama and his agency appointees – including OSHA administrator David Michaels – to pursue a path of additional regulation. Doing so would open up the administration to attacks that suggest Obama is more concerned about saddling employers with additional requirements and costs than helping small employers survive and thrive in a fragile economy.

But this has been an argument against the Obama administration since day one, and is something Michaels himself has fought against by pointing out that his agency has issued very few major regulations in recent years. Michaels repeatedly has asserted that regulation actually can help lower costs for employers who comply with the rules.

According to Feldman, the contention that regulations lead to more costs or do more harm than good is false. “We know these rules can save a lot of workers’ lives in terms of preventing injuries and illnesses,” he told Safety+Health. “This ideology of ‘regulations are bad’ or ‘regulations don’t have any benefits’ … doesn’t really have a role in our political conversations, as it’s mostly based on lies and misinformation.”

In an October report Feldman wrote for Public Citizen, he contended that thousands of workers could have been spared illnesses – some of which were fatal – if standards for hazards such as beryllium or diacetyl had not been delayed (see “‘Layers’ weigh down OSHA,” Safety+Health, January 2012, p. 32).

In addition to the delayed rules, a proposed rule to update the Crystalline Silica Standard has, at press time, been stuck in review for a year and missed numerous deadlines to move forward. Feldman doubted many – if any – regulations currently pursued by OSHA would progress until after the November elections.

This could be devastating to workers who need greater protection than what current, out-of-date rules provide (or, in the cases of diacetyl and combustible dust, protection from hazards that go uncovered by regulations). Noting Republican resistance to regulations, Feldman speculated that none of these rules will likely move forward under a new administration if Obama is not re-elected. Harkening back to an expression of hope Obama himself used to utter, Feldman issued a plea to the president and his administration: “We’re calling on Obama to have the audacity to protect workers.”

The opinions expressed in “Washington Update” do not necessarily reflect those of the National Safety Council or affiliated local Chapters.

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