Regulatory agenda: More delays

Cancer risks don’t wait for lower exposure limits, and the risks of explosions don’t wait for safer facilities. But unfortunately, workers are being asked to wait for safer and healthier work environments while the current administration stalls several standards that could bring protection from these dangerous hazards.

Released Jan. 20, the fall 2011 agenda has delayed deadlines for several standards when compared to the previous agenda:

Crystalline Silica: Notice of proposed rulemaking expected in February originally expected last June

Confined Spaces in Construction: Final action expected in June originally expected last November

Hazard Communication: Final action expected in February originally expected last September

“If they were to actually stick by those dates, I would be extremely happy. But history has shown those dates are not entirely meaningful,” Justin Feldman said of the new timeline. Feldman is the worker health and safety advocate with the congress watch division of Public Citizen, a Washington-based nonprofit consumer protection organization, and he spoke to me recently about the delays in regard to OSHA regulations.

Indeed, several of these rules have been similarly delayed numerous times before. This is at least the fifth time silica has received a new NPRM release date. Both Confined Spaces and Hazard Communications have been delayed once before, too.

This isn’t necessarily OSHA’s fault alone. The agency can set its own goals, but its hands are tied in certain respects, Feldman said. For instance, OSHA hasn’t been able to move forward with the silica NPRM because it has been under review of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget.

Some delays, however, are worse than others. In the previous agenda, OSHA indicated its proposed standards on beryllium, combustible dust and diacetyl would be moving forward with various reviews. Beryllium was expected to have an economic peer review in June, combustible dust was supposed to have a Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act review in December, and diacetyl was expected to have a peer review in June and be completed in July.

None of those things happened, apparently. In the latest regulatory agenda, all three rules were put in a “long-term actions” category, with the next step in its promulgation left as “undetermined.”

This is disheartening, knowing the effect these hazards pose to workers. Combustible dust explosions continue to be a major danger, and the Chemical Safety Board recently repeated its recommendation that OSHA issue a standard on the hazard. According to a report (.pdf file) Feldman prepared for Public Citizen in October, beryllium and diacetyl have led to thousands of workers contracting diseases and cancers that standards may have otherwise prevented.

No PEL or new OSHA standard will prevent all cancers or workplace incidents. But it should be noted that deaths and injuries from grain dust explosions fell 60 percent (.pdf file) since OSHA promulgated a standard in that industry 25 years ago, and most of the OSHA-enforced PELs are based on outdated, decades-old science.

So what’s the point of the deadlines in the regulatory agenda if they aren’t going to be followed? Are they meant to help keep the agency on track, or are they simply part of a formal process that carries no weight at all?

“I don’t want to think it’s just pro forma, but it seems that’s what it’s become,” Feldman said.

With lives on the line, it’s certainly sad when formality takes precedence over action.

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

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