While we’re on vacation, we’re re-posting content from last year. This post was originally published on March 23, 2012.

By Celeste Monforton

Earlier this week, Lizzie Grossman reported here at The Pump Handle on revisions to OSHA’s Hazard Communication standard which align the agency’s 30 year old rule with a globally harmonized system for classifying and labeling chemical hazards. In “Moving from Right-to-Know to Right-to-Understand,” we learn how the changes stem from a 2002 United Nations resolution and why they should help U.S. workers better protect themselves from chemical hazards in their workplaces.

I spent some time this week reading for myself the 858-page document, and by the time I got to page 20 it was clear that OSHA staff did a top notch job writing the rule. I’ve learned that key credit belongs to the project director Maureen Ruskin, along with Deana Holmes, Kathy Landkrohn, Jessica Stone, and Ed Baird. It doesn’t take long to recognize that they spent thousands of hours reading the public comments, reconciling them with OSHA’s legal authority and policy priorities, and preparing a comprehensive justification for these regulatory revisions. [Round of applause.] The fact that they merged these GHS revisions with at least a dozen other OSHA standards did not go unnoticed. I’m sure it was a tedious task. It’s one that is vitally important however to ensure consistent information is provided to workers and employers. [More applause.]

To learn more about the rule itself, read Lizzie’s post. For now, I’d like to your draw attention to the meticulous way OSHA reports on the comments it received through the rulemaking process. I don’t think any other agency goes to such lengths or measures up to this high standard. It’s something the agency has done for many years.

For each proposed provision you learn from OSHA’s analysts the views of specific individuals and organizations. You’ll read paragraph after paragraph, page after page of information like this:

“Dow Chemical, Troy Corporation, and several other commenters recommended that red borders should only be required on products that were being exported (Document ID # 0352, 0353, 0399, 0405, and 0389). Similarly, API [American Petroleum Institute] argued that in order to remain consistent with the GHS, OSHA should only require exported chemicals to have a red border (Document ID # 0376).”

You can see how OSHA staff also provide readers with a reference to these comments, just in case you want to examine them for yourself.

What you typically see from other federal regulatory agencies is merely this:

“Some commenters agree with the need for X. Other commenters said it wasn’t necessary. One commenter suggested a Y approach, and another commenter recommended Z.”

These agencies seem to intentionally avoid telling you who said what. They also don’t make it easy to find it out on your own because they don’t provide references to the comments. In contrast, OSHA’s document, lays it all on the table, like this:

OSHA received a comment from Croplife America about the impact of using a two-tiered signal word system on pesticide labels (Document ID # 0387). …Phlymar, ORC, BCI, 3M, American Iron & Steel Institute, and the North American Metals Council (NAMC) all agreed that the adoption of the GHS would improve the quality and consistency of information and the effectiveness of hazard communication (Documents ID # 0322, 0336, 0339, 0370, 0377, 0390, 0405, and 0408). (See also Document ID # 0327, 0338, 0339, 0346, 0347, 0349, 0351, 0354, 0363, 0365, 0370, 0372, 0374, 0379, 0389, 0390, 0397, 0405, 0408, and 0414.)

Preambles written like this are immensely more informative than what appears in other agency’s documents. This includes those prepared by OSHA’s sister agency, the MIne Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). The most recent final rule issued by MSHA addressed the application of rock dust in underground coal mines to reduce the combustibility of coal dust. There are a lot of “several commenters,” “some commenters,” and “one commenter,” but not a single viewpoint attributed to an individual or organization. The historical record is wholly incomplete without this information.

I recall a situation shortly after the January 2006 Sago coal mine disaster, when our investigation team was trying to determine how certain rules related to underground coal mine ventilation made their way into a final standard adopted by MSHA in 1992 (57 Federal Register 20868.) We were particularly interested in finding out whether trade association representatives or specific coal companies, including the operator of the Sago mine, had urged MSHA to adopt options that offered lesser protection, and ultimately contributed to the death of 12 coal miners.

Our search for these answers was complicated greatly because of MSHA’s decision to keep commenters anonymous. The preamble to the 1992 rule said “some commenters objected to X” and “commenters questioned the need for Y,” but their identity was not disclosed. And, because MSHA does not include a notation to refer the reader to the source document, determining who said what took some real detective work and in this case, a trip to MSHA’s headquarters in Arlington, VA.

Take this example from 2008, an MSHA final rule lowering the permissible exposure limit for asbestos from 2.0 fibers per cubic meter of air to 0.1 fibers.

“Commenters urged MSHA to expand the rulemaking to include specific requirements to prevent take-home contamination. NIOSH also encouraged MSHA to adopt measures included in its 1995 Report to Congress on their Workers’ Home Contamination Study Conducted under the Workers’ Family Protection Act. Other commenters, however, supported MSHA’s decision and stated that take-home contamination requirements could not be justified at this time.”

I think these preamble documents would better serve the public interest if agencies attributed views to the individuals or organizations who espoused them. I think about this example and MSHA’s failure to put in place rules to protect family members and the community from asbestos contamination. I imagine 20 years from now, some individual develops an asbestos-related disease from being exposed to the clothes his dad wore at a Minnesota taconite mine. This individual might like to read which interests groups or companies opposed provisions to prevent take-home contamination. And he’d also sadly note that MSHA offiicals during the G.W. Bush Administration didn’t think these protections were needed either. [There’s nothing stopping MSHA today from righting this wrong.]

As I digress to explain why the historical record on a federal agency rule should not only articulate the public comments received but also who said them, it gives me another chance to applaud OSHA’s regulation writers for doing this so well. You’ve strengthened a fundamental safety rule and will be helping to ensure that workers understand the chemical hazards they face on-the-job. You’ve also created a meaningful historical record that documents interested parties’ views in this day and age on chemical hazard labeling and safety data sheets.

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