The Bush Administration is doing everything possible to help its powerful political buddies during its last days in office. Political appointees at the Department of Labor are moving with unusual speed to push through in the final months of the Bush Administration a rule making it tougher to regulate workers’ on-the-job exposure to chemicals and toxins. The agency did not disclose the proposal, as required, in public notices of regulatory plans that it filed in December and May. Instead, Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao’s intention to push for the rule first surfaced on July 7th, when the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) posted on its Web site that it was reviewing the proposal, identified only by its nine-word title.
The text of the proposed rule has not been made public, but according to The Washington Post, it would call for reexamining the methods used to measure risks posed by workplace exposure to toxins. The change would address long-standing complaints from businesses that the government overestimates the risk posed by job exposure to chemicals. The rule would also require the agency to take an extra step before setting new limits on chemicals in the workplace by allowing an additional round of challenges to agency risk assessments. The Department’s speed in trying to make the regulatory change contrasts with its reluctance to alter workplace safety rules over the past seven and a half years. During that time, the Labor Department adopted only one major health rule for a chemical in the workplace. It took a court order to bring about the adoption of that rule.
The fast-track approach has brought criticism from workplace-safety advocates, unions and Democrats in Congress. The Bush Administration is being accused of working secretly to give industry a parting gift that will help it delay or block safety regulations after George Bush leaves office. The public will have 30 days to critique the draft rule after it is published. Adam Finkel, a professor at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey who is a former health standards director at Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, observed:
It’s an insult to America’s workers for the Department of Labor to be spending its time in the last year of this administration allegedly fine-tuning the details of how to do these regulations when, other than the one ordered by a court, they have issued no major worker-health regulations. The reality is there’s a great need to light a fire under this moribund agency to do something — anything — to protect workers.
There are a number of Democrats in Congress who recognize what the Administration is up to. Rep. George Miller (D-CA), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, has vowed to protect workers. In this regard, he said:
The fact that the Department of Labor seems to be engaged in secret rulemaking makes me highly suspicious that some high-level political appointees are up to no good. This Congress will not stand for the gutting of health and safety protections as the Bush administration heads out the door.
In spring 2007, the department listed 38 potential workplace-safety regulations as works in progress. Among its priorities were a proposal to reduce deaths and injuries from cranes and derricks, which we mention in this issue; a new rule to reduce illnesses from silica, which can cause respiratory diseases; and a proposal to change regulation of beryllium, a light metal that can harm the lungs of dental and metal workers. But virtually overnight, changing the risk-assessment process became the agency’s top priority for workplace regulations. The July submission of its proposal broke a deadline set by White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten, who had ordered that all agencies submit proposed regulations before June 1st and “resist the historical tendency of administrations to increase regulatory activity in their final months.” It’s quite obvious that pressure from the White House has caused a change in policy.
Nevertheless, the OMB agreed to work with Labor on the proposal. The July 7th posting on its Web site shocked many inside and outside the agency who had been following the events. Changing the job safety and health laws and reducing required workplace protections at this stage is just plain wrong. It’s believed by many safety experts that the rule would add another barrier to creating safety standards. The Bush Administration has not been worker-friendly in any respect, but its latest attempts to make it virtually impossible for any good safety regulations to come out of OHSA is a last-ditch attempt to actually hurt workers. The fact it is being done in secrecy makes it even worse. It’s a blatant attempt to tie the hands of the next administration.
Source: Washington Post
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