OSHA action on worker safety standards during Presidential election years

I'll be the first to admit I've criticized the Obama Administration's OSHA for failing to issue or even propose many new worker safety and health standards.   As I wrote earlier this month, under President Obama and Secretary Solis, OSHA has only issued three new worker safety rules, two of which were safety standards affecting discrete industries and the third, a rule broadly endorsed by big business.  Some colleagues and commentators attribute this mediocre record to regulatory resistance in the White House, pressure from Republicans on Capitol Hill, too few staff in the OSHA standards office, and the agency's shifting rulemaking priorities.  Most recently, a popular excuse for the agency's lackluster regulatory performance is this:  OSHA's regulatory activities always slow down during a Presidential election year.

I wondered if that was actually true.

The table below breaks down key rulemaking action by OSHA during the last seven Presidential election years.  I reviewed the Federal Register dating back to 194, for the period January 1 through each's respective November election day.  I recorded all OSHA notices announcing a proposed rule, a final rule, an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking or a request for information on a potential proposed rule.  (The list of actions by year is posted here.) 

Using these measures, the most productive election years for OSHA regulatory action occurred during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush Administrations.  In 1984 when Reagan was running for re-election, OSHA issued final rules on ethylene oxide, rim wheels and the state-based consultation program.  The agency also proposed rules on asbestos, field sanitation in agriculture, grain handling, among others.  At the end of Reagan's second term, while G.H.W. Bush was running for President, OSHA finalized rules on excursion limits for asbestos, tremolite, anthophyllite and actinolite,  mechanical power presses, concrete and masonry construction,  among others.  The agency also proposed rules on lockout/tagout, exposure limits for 375 air contaminants, concrete lift-slab construction, and generic standards for medical surveillance, and exposure monitoring.

In 1992 when G.H.W. Bush was seeking re-election, OSHA issued five final rules, including process safety management of highly hazardous chemicals (in February), occupational exposure to formaldehyde (in May), to 4,4 methylenedianeline (in August), and to cadmium (in September).  In August of that year, OSHA also published an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking entitled "Ergonomic Safety and Health Management."  When Clinton was seeking re-election in 1996, OSHA issued four final rules, including revisions to personal protective equipment requirements in shipyards (in May), safety standards for scaffolds used in construction (in August),  and occupational exposure to 1,3 butadiene (on Election Day).

There are 70 days left until Election Day 2012.  So far this year, President Obama's OSHA has issued a final rule to harmonize its Hazard Communication rule with global standards, proposed a rule on cranes and derricks during demolition and underground construction, and published a request for information on hazards related to reinforced concrete and backing up vehicles.   It's not a record of action that conforms with OSHA's performance during the seven previous Presidential election years, but comparable to its record during the George W. Bush Administration.

This little exercise and this little table don't actually tell us whether OSHA rulemaking activities slow down during an election year.  For that, I'd need to assemble the same information on regulatory activities in the year before an election and compare it to the figures in the table above.  Maybe I'll pull together that data next month.  For now, we just know that the number of final and proposed rules issued by OSHA during Presidential Election years rapidly declined after 1996.

P.S.  In late June, OSHA submitted for review a final rule addressing hazards related to Electric Power Transmission and Distribution in the construction industry to the White House's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.  I'll be happy to revise the chart above if it (or any other key regulatory activities) is published before November 6, 2012.

P.P.S. I made the correction to the table on September 12, 2012, and to the attachment provided in paragraph 3.

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Very interesting! And I'm glad your chart includes a column on the rules proposed in each presidential term, as well as those finalized. So many rules are first proposed in one term but finished in another, so the president who's credited with finalizing a rule might've had less to do with it than his predecessor.

Even by the "rules proposed" metric alone, the Reagan administration is the source of the most regulations.

I appreciate the information provided in your post. I think most safety and health professionals would also be interested in rulemaking activities in non-election years. I find the lack of rulemaking activities to enhance workplace safety and health by the current administration both surprising and disappointing.

If you want to examine the effects of delays in regulatory actions, you should also look at regulatory activity in the period following an election and before the inauguration during a change in administration.

One thing which would be valuable is to show how many rules for each president were either ordered to be finalized by the courts or required by Congress. As I recall (although I could be wrong) a number of the Reagan era rules had been proposed under Carter, delayed by the Grace Commission and OMB, and finally promulgated only after court order (e.g., Hazcom, albeit with a more limited scope than was proposed under Eula Bingham). PSM (under Bush the 1st) was required by Congressional action (OSHA met the Congressional deadline, EPA did not).

Unfortunately, standards setting has become more difficult as each resident seems to give to (or tolerate from) OMB more and more power.

This is great information and certainly undercuts the arguments that President Obama is killing US business through over-regulation! Thanks for the analysis.

By Adele Abrams (not verified) on 29 Aug 2012 #permalink

Having had a loved one killed on the job due to OSHA failings, I need to say we need to concentrate less on MAKING new rules and instead focus on actually ENFORCING existing rules.

Confusing when you say, 'It’s not a record of action that conforms with OSHA’s performance during the seven previous Presidential election years, but comparable to its record during the George H.W. Bush Administration.' Do you mean George W. Bush?

By Jamie Brandt (not verified) on 02 Sep 2012 #permalink

Thanks for pointing out that mistake. Yes, I meant the George W. Bush Administration. It's now corrected in my post.