Obama Administration’s silence on silica is deafening, 2 years and counting for OSHA proposal

Imagine an organization that is given 90 days to complete a task, but after two years still hasn’t finished the job.  When you ask them ‘what’s taking so long?’ or ‘when we’ll you be done?’ they respond with ‘no comment.’

That’s the frustrating situation encountered by the U.S. public health and worker safety community when it comes to the Obama Administration and a proposed rule to protect workers from respirable crystalline silica.  The proposed regulation would potentially affect  workers involved in stonecutting, sandblasting, tuckpointing, brickmaking, foundries, and road, tunnel and bridge crews, who are at increased risk of developing the lung disease silicosis, cancer, autoimmune and other disorders from exposure to silica dust. It’s been two years since the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) submitted a proposal for review to the Obama White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA).   The stipulated three month review period has dragged on now for 24 months.  Inquiries made of OIRA on the status of their review are answered with unsatisfactory responses like:

“we don’t comment on proposals under review.”

For me, the situation is particularly perplexing, and frankly aggravating, because of the Obama Administration’s pronouncements about the value of public participation in agency activities.  On the President’s first full day in office he issued a Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government.  He wrote:

“My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration.   …Government should be participatory. Public engagement enhances the Government’s effectiveness and improves the quality of its decisions. Knowledge is widely dispersed in society, and public officials benefit from having access to that dispersed knowledge.”

Later when the President issued Executive Order 13563 entitled “Improving Regulation and Regulatory Review,” he again reiterated the value of public participation and an “open exchange of ideas.”  Yet by holding onto OSHA’s draft proposed regulation for two years, OIRA has prevented that exchange of ideas from taking place.

A proposed regulation is meant to be just that—a proposal.  Once it’s published, OSHA will hold months and months of public hearings to receive feedback on all aspects of the proposal.    A worker involved in abrasive blasting might testify on the effectiveness of alternatives to sand; a manufacturer of rock drills might testify on the latest in dust collection devices; and the owner of a small business might testify on the costs of establishing a health surveillance program.   All of this information can be used by OSHA to improve their proposal.   I think that’s what President Obama meant when he said the public engagement can improve the quality of government decisions.  But with his OIRA “reviewing” OSHA’s proposed rule for two years now, the Labor Department and OSHA haven’t been able to benefit from the exchange of ideas, and data, and points of view.  When OIRA officials are asked ‘why the delay?’ it’s the same unsatisfactory answer: “we don’t comment on proposals under review.”   So much for transparency.

Although the Obama Administration’s silence about the status of OSHA’s proposed silica rule is deafening, a number of groups are expressing their displeasure about the two year delay.  AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka writing on HuffPost says “White House inaction on silica deadly for workers”; the Center for Effective Government says “it’s time for OIRA to stop blocking the silica rule”; and Public Citizen notes how the “obscure but powerful OIRA works against protecting the public.”