Slow progress by OSHA to improve worker health and safety regulations

The Labor Department provided an update on January 20, 2012 to its regulatory agenda, including revised target dates for improved workplace safety and health standards. Several of the rules OSHA now expects to publish in 2012 are regulations the agency previously said would be issued one or two years ago. Missed deadlines, however, are nothing new for OSHA—an agency that has only issued two new major health or safety standards in the last 10 years.

To put these new projections from OSHA in perspective, I’ll refer to forecasts made previously by the Obama/Solis Administration in 2009 and 2010.

Revising labeling and other requirements for chemical hazard to conform with globally harmonized standards (a final rule.) OSHA is now predicting a final rule will be published in February 2012. An earlier projection suggested the rule would be issued in August 2011. This rule seems to be one OSHA regulatory proposal that the White House favors, with the President’s regulatory czar explaining it will save employers more than $2.5 billion in the next five years without compromising worker safety. Still, the rule has been “under review” at OMB for now more than the standard 90 days as prescribed in Executive Order 12866.

Protecting construction workers from toxic gases in confined spaces (a final rule.) OSHA is now projecting this final rule, with a history dating back to 1993, will be published in June 2012. Previously, OSHA forecast a November 2011 publication date.

Protecting construction workers from hazards in the construction of electric power transmission and distribution lines (a final rule.) OSHA is now projecting this final rule will be published in May 2012. Previously, OSHA forecast a September May 2011 publication date.

Protecting workers exposed to crystalline silica (a proposed rule.) OSHA is now projecting this proposed rule will be published for public comment in February 2012. Two years ago, the agency forecast publication of a proposed rule in July 2010. A year ago, OSHA submitted a draft proposed rule to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for review, but now nearly a year later, it remains “under review.” Last week, more than 300 scientists and public health advocates urged the White House to release it.

OSHA has moved several topics to “Long-term Actions,” defined as

“items under development but for which the agency does not expect to have a regulatory action within the 12 months after publication of this edition of the Unified Agenda.”

These topics include:

Protecting workers from exposure to beryllium. OSHA had indicated its plan to conduct in May 2011 a peer review of its draft proposed economic analysis. Now that this item has been moved to OSHA’s long-term action list, I wondered if they had in fact conducted this special review of the draft economic analysis. An OSHA spokesperson reported to me they had not, adding, the agency “recently received some new and significant information that has a direct impact on the economic analysis.”

Protecting workers from the butter-flavoring agents diacetyl and 2,3-pentanedione. Last spring, OSHA indicated it planned to rely on a peer-reviewed risk assessment document on these chemicals that was being prepared by the CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). OSHA projected that the peer review of the document would be completed by July 2011. This latest regulatory agenda merely says the next steps for this topic is “to be determined.” An OSHA spokesperson reported that NIOSH has initiated, but not completed, the peer review process of the document.

Protecting workers from explosions caused by combustible dust. OSHA had projected in its Spring 2011 agenda that it would initiate the required small-business panel review (a.k.a. SBREFA process) in December 2011. OSHA is now indicating this stage in the rulemaking process will be delayed for at least a year.

Writing at Sustained Outrage, the Charleston (WV) Gazette’s Ken Ward Jr. reminds us what then-Senator Barack Obama said about combustible dust after the February 2008 explosion that killed 14 workers. He said the slow pace of rulemaking at OSHA during the GW Bush Administration “puts workers’ lives at risk.” Ward’s post entitled “Obama’s OSHA puts protecting workers from dangers of combustible dust on back burner,” received this comment from Chris Sherburne, whose husband Wiley, 42, died from a dust explosion at the Hoeganaes Corporation plant in Gallatin, TN:

“I truly hope these recommendations are not put on a back burner. Its very important to have regulations in place to try and prevent other families from experiencing the horrible tragedy that our family has.”

Regrettably, the Obama Administration has put several of these rules have been put officially on the back burner, and time will tell whether the others will finish cooking and be served in 2012.

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