A hearing on worker safety rule would open public debate, but White House thwarts it

A funny thing happened when representatives of U.S. foundries met on March 12 with White House officials to complain about a not-yet-proposed worker safety regulation.  The industry group seemed to forget that the targets of their complaints are contained in their own best practices publication.

The American Foundry Society (AFS) requested the meeting with the Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB) Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) to discuss a draft proposed rule by the Labor Department’s OSHA to protect workers exposed to respirable crystalline silica.  AFS argued that machinery, ventilation and other engineering improvements will be costly for foundries to implement if OSHA mandates reductions in workers’ exposure to silica.  But AFS didn’t go to OIRA to complain specifically about those items.   In a document prepared for the meeting and a 30-page cost analysis attached to it, AFS focused their complaint on the following “ancillary provisions” they expect in the proposed OSHA regulation:

  • Exposure monitoring
  • Health screening and surveillance
  • Clothing and hygiene facilities
  • Regulated (restricted) work areas
  • Housekeeping requirements
  • Respirator use and programs
  • Hazard communication and training
  • Recordkeeping
  • Silica competent person

AFS contends that the combined cost of these provisions would be substantial, from an estimated $352 million to nearly $500 million for U.S. foundries.  Some of these same requirements, however, are topics considered “essential” in AFS’s own “Control of Silica Exposure in Foundries.”   This AFS best practices document outlines the “essential elements for success of any air contaminants program,” which include exposure monitoring, housekeeping, respiratory protection and medical monitoring.

Is this another example of a trade association or employer giving lip service to worker safety, but when industry “best practices” are proposed as regulations they draw fierce opposition?   Or is the AFS’s apparent inconsistency just a matter of the devil being in the details?

Well, those are the kind of inquiries that could be made of the AFS during the public rulemaking process, and OSHA’s process is just the sort to do the probing.  During the agency’s public hearings, participant not only offer testimony, but can be cross-examined by other participants, as well as by OSHA staff.  An administrative law judge oversees the entire proceeding, which may carry on for several months.  But for two years now, the Obama White House has barred this interactive process from taking place.  No explanation is given.  White House spokespeople simply say “we do not comment on rules under review.”

These reviews, pursuant to Executive Order (EO) 12866  and EO 13563, are supposed to take 90 days.  OIRA’s review of OSHA’s draft proposed rule on crystalline silica has dragged on for more than 800 days.

The AFS clearly has something to say about foundry workers’ exposure to respirable silica.   It’s the second time that representatives of the metal casting industry have met with OMB about the yet-to-be-proposed OSHA rule.  The first time was in March 2011 when they joined a group organized by the American Chemistry Council.  But more importantly, AFS  has unique expertise when it comes to respirable silica exposure and control in foundries.   Their members in the metal casting industry use between 6 and 10 million tons of foundry sand annually.   It was under a cooperative agreement with OSHA that the trade association developed the 80-page guide “Control of Silica Exposure in Foundries.”  The document includes silica-control success stories from four foundries.  Why doesn’t the Administration want to allow the official rulemaking forum to take place?  Stakeholders and OSHA staff could ask AFS to elaborate on their views about exposure monitoring,  housekeeping and other sound practices, and how they jive with the worker safety standard being proposed.

The AFS’s closed door meeting on March 12 was the tenth one on this yet-to-be proposed OSHA regulation.  The industry group prepared a 30-page cost analysis on what they think will be in a proposed OSHA rule on respirable crystalline silica.  I hope the Administration officials will see the absurdity in that, and finally allow the public comment period and hearings to begin on the real thing.

 

Comments

  1. #1 David Rosner
    Columbia University
    March 22, 2013

    Fascinating piece! This is part and parcel of the foundry industry’s efforts to reach into the highest levels of government to seek protection from environmental regulations. Gerald Markowitz and I detail earlier attempts to escape the requirements of CASAC lead standards in our new book, Lead Wars: The Politics of Science and the Fate of America’s Children (U of Cal Press, 2013).

  2. #2 Jim Albers
    March 22, 2013

    I worked as a laborer and molder in a unionized grey iron foundry in the 70s. The overwhelming majority of workers at that time were African-American or Latino (Chicano, Mexican, and Puerto Rican). Jobs were segmented according to ethnicity. I was a rarity given that most workers of European origin worked in the core room or as in maintenance. Minority workers did the most hazardous and physically demanding work in this foundry.

    Anyone familiar with this industry knows that this was not unusual. Even in UAW and Steelworker facilities these jobs were largely ‘reserved’ for minority workers given how unuion ‘senority’ systems operated.

    There is no reason to believe that minority workers do not constitute the majority of foundry production workers today. Referring to the increase in Hispanic employment in manufacturing in general, Foundry magazine wrote the following in 2004: “In some foundries the percentage (of Hispanic workers) runs over 90 percent, particularly in California, the New York City area, parts of Texas, and the industrial areas of Northern Illinois and the Rust Belt. In the California foundry, 93 percent of the workers were Hispanic.” See http://foundrymag.com/feature/furnace-finishing-managing-hispanic-worker.

    The FOUNDRY magazine has also written of the influx of undocumeted workers into the industry. Like most of manufacturing, this industry is largely unorganized. For example, the Glass, Molders and Pottery Workers Union has less than 30,000 members representing ALL of these industries, and there are some 81,500 production foundry workers.

    is there any wonder that the AFS has access to the White House, while workers and their advocates do notGiven the large number of minority workers, including the undocumented, who lack basic union representation, ?

  3. #3 Jim Albers
    March 22, 2013

    My last paragraph should read:

    Is there any wonder that the AFS has access to the White House, while workers and their advocates do not given the large number of minority workers, including the undocumented, who lack basic union representation?

  4. #4 Steve Curtis
    United States
    March 25, 2013

    There is a world of difference between a practice that is recommended to protect workers, and may be addressed in the manner most effective for the company involved, and one that is written so as to mandate a particular solution.

    Companies are already required to provide protection from hazardous materials, of which silica is one. And AFS has provided their members with suggestions for doing so. Now, others want a rule specifying a particular means of protection be mandated by gov’t.

    Let companies do what best fits their situation, without mandating a Washington “solution”, and cite them if they don’t. Like so many of OSHA’s rules, this one appears to be more of a benefit to unions and well connected lobbyists than the workers themselves.

  5. Steve,
    Because the OSHA proposal has not been shared with the public, I woudn’t be comfortable saying that it is “one that is written so as to mandate a particular solution” or “one that appears to be more of a benefit to unions and well connected lobbyists.” At this point, I’d simply like workers, companies and other experts to review an actual OSHA proposal. Then we can have the debate about whether it is too prescriptive or if it gives companies the flexibility to “do what best fits their situation.”

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