Looking at my crystal ball to predict regulatory initiatives for worker safety

It’s that time of year, when the Secretary of Labor is supposed to outline her rulemaking priorities for next 12 months. This would include new proposal to protect mine workers, like the 64 killed already this year, and the tens of thousands made ill by inadequate OSHA standards on exposure to chemicals. The Presidential Executive Order governing this process dictates that agencies’ regulatory plans be published in October. Last year the Obama Administration didn’t release its plan until December, but I chalked that delay to the stalled Senate confirmation of the President’s reg czar, Cass Sunstein. He wasn’t confirmed to the post of director of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) until September 2009. This year’s regulatory plan is few days late and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it is tardy because of pre- Election Day jitters. The White House and politically-appointed Department heads probably didn’t want to give opponents of federal regulations—-no matter how worthwhile the rules may be—-any more anti-Washington ammunition. Any day now we should be seeing the Obama Administration’s plan for new health, safety and environmental regulations.

I know that this annual ritual of outlining an Administration’s regulatory priorities is mostly symbolic. I like to think of these regulatory plans as an historical snapshot that reflects the personalities of the leaders managing our public health agencies. More times than not, these plans become stale because target dates for key actions are missed, hot topics cool down, new issues heat up, and political winds shift. Regardless, they give us a sense of the leaders’ visions for their agencies.

I glanced today at my crystal ball and I offer the following predictions about items that will appear in the Labor Department’s forthcoming Fall 2010 regulatory agenda:

  • The document will be published in the Federal Register by November 8, 2010.
  • OSHA will propose by January 2011 a requirement for employers to notify the agency within 15 minutes of the time an agent of the employer learns of the death of an employee at work, or of an incident which has the reasonable potential to cause the death of an employee. OSHA will also propose a requirement for employers to notify the agency within 7 days of any incident resulting in the in-patient hospitalization of an employee. These changes would bring OSHA’s reporting requirements on par with those required by MSHA for employers in the mining industry.
  • OSHA will mark its 40th anniversary by proposing to publish in April 2011 a final rule to save construction workers from deaths in confined spaces. Workers in other industries have had the benefit of an OSHA confined space standard since 1993, but construction workers were intentionally left out of that rule. OSHA gathered public comments and conducted public hearings in 2007 and 2008 on a proposal to address this serious issue.
  • MSHA will propose in April 2011 a rule to protect all U.S. mine workers from exposure to respirable crystalline silica. The rule will complement the agency’s bold proposal issued last month to revise regulations to better protect coal miners from black lung disease. MSHA is relying on a peer-reviewed risk assessment of the health effects of respirable silica that was completed by OSHA in January 2010. About ten times as many U.S. mine workers are potentially exposed to respirable silica dust compared to respirable coal dust. The health consequences of chronic exposure to silica are severe and include progressive fibrotic lung disease, cancer and autoimmune disorders.
  • OSHA will propose by June 2011 a rule to protect beryllium-exposed workers. The agency indicated in its previous regulatory agenda that it would complete by November 2010 a peer review of its health effects risk assessment. The life-threatening harm associated with even low-level exposure to beryllium continues to mount and the primary (maybe only) U.S. beryllium supplier, Brush Wellman, enthusiastically promotes the means to control exposure to its customers.
  • OSHA will propose by July 2011 a rule requiring employers with more than 250 employees to implement a program to identify and correct workplace hazards. The rule will propose requiring a high-level of worker involvement in reporting hazardous conditions, violations of OSHA standards, and near-miss incidents to their line supervisors, and requirements for annual peer-to-peer training on workers’ rights.
  • MSHA will issue a final rule in August 2011 to protect coal miners from black lung disease. The White House will offer a special proclamation to MSHA staff for their determination in proposing and finalizing a worker health standard in only 10 months.

My crystal balls sees a productive and progressive slate of public health protections put forward by OSHA and MSHA in the coming months. It shouldn’t be long before the Labor Department’s regulatory plan is published in the Federal Register. I’ll decide then whether to put my crystal ball in the recycling bin.

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