Just before the House passed legislation last month requiring OSHA to regulate diacetyl, OSHA’s press office went into high gear, announcing the agency was getting to work on just that issue. Two days before the vote, OSHA announced it was initiating rulemaking under section 6(b) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act. In other words, it was finally going to start the process of issuing a standard to protect workers exposed to hazardous flavor chemicals. As part of that process, it announced a stakeholder meeting, scheduled for October 17, 2007. (I’ll be attending the meeting, and have prepared a statement for it.)
With these announcements coming in the two days before the House vote, it appeared that the agency was trying to do just enough to make House members think legislation was unnecessary. After all, NIOSH first publicized “popcorn workers lung” five years ago, and OSHA could have begun the rulemaking process at any point since then. Why make the big announcements just before the House vote, if not to try and influence the outcome?
Call me suspicious, but the latest statements from OSHA look like they are backtracking already. According to OSHA spokeperson George Chartier, quoted in the Orange (CT) Bulletin, the stakeholder meeting is “part of the steps to determine if a rule is necessary.”
OSHA’s diacetyl stakeholder meeting is tomorrow. Now is the agency’s chance to show us whether they’re committed to rulemaking.
Being committed doesn’t just mean saying that they’ll do it. OSHA needs to demonstrate that it intends to get this rule finished on a timeline that reflects the severity of the situation. As Celeste Monforton has observed here, several important standards promised by OSHA have gotten bogged down in the process, leaving workers still at risk from beryllium, crystalline silica, and confined space in the construction industry. Yes, there are lots of steps in the process, but if OSHA is truly committed to it, it can get a diacetyl rule finished within two years. But the political leadership of the Labor Department have to be committed to getting the job done.
I fear this is just one more instance of window-dressing, and we’ve already seen too much of it on diacetyl. When the Senate takes up diacetyl legislation, OSHA will claim that the legislation isn’t necessary because the rulemaking process has already begun – look, we had a meeting! I hate to say it, but I think this outcome is the more likely of the two. I would be delighted to have OSHA prove me wrong.
David Michaels heads the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP) and is Professor and Associate Chairman in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services.