Shortly after taking office, the head of the Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) acknowledged the troubling slow pace at which new worker safety regulations are put in place. In a February 2010 speech, David Michaels, PhD, MPH said:
"Some standards have taken more than a decade to establish, and that's not an acceptable response when workers are in danger."
In a March 2010 speech the OSHA chief added:
"Clearly the current system for issuing standards doesn't work well for those it's supposed to benefit - workers. When rulemaking takes years and even decades, and when enormous resources required of a new standard mean we can only develop a few at a time, you know something is seriously wrong."
Many in the public health and workers' rights community agree with Dr. Michaels' assessment. The trouble is, nothing has been done to address the problem, and the Obama Administration seems to be making it worse.
A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report issued seven months ago identified some of the potential choke points in the OSHA rulemaking process. Largely missing from the report, however, was a discussion about delays caused within the Executive Branch itself, specifically in the White House's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). My colleague Rena Steinzor calls OIRA the place where health protective regulations go to be watered down or killed. OIRA is technically the office where proposed and final regulations are reviewed, pursuant to Executive Order (EO) 12866 and EO 13563, and ultimately get a thumbs up or down by White House staff.
These White House reviews are supposed to take 90 days. But for some worker safety rules, OIRA has extended their review for more than 300 or 400 days. That's what I mean when I say the Obama Administration seems to be making things worse.
The table below shows seven worker safety rules developed by OSHA or the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). Four of them are simply proposals for which the agencies wish to solicit comments from the public and conduct information-gathering hearings. This includes a proposal developed by OSHA to protect workers exposed to respirable crystalline silica. The 90 day review period on this silica proposal has long passed. To-date, OIRA's "review" of this proposal has lasted 645 days. The longest held MSHA proposal addresses the crushing hazards created by mobile equipment. It's been "under review" at OIRA for 431 days. Just a few months ago, a West Virginia coal miner was killed in just the kind of incident addressed by the stalled MSHA proposal.
If the White House was wary about issuing regulations during the election season, that time has now passed. The Presidential election is over. President Obama won.
How much more time will the Obama Administration waste while workers live (and die) with the consequences of White House delays?
Let's hope 2013 brings some movement with the Administration to move these important worker safety & health protections forward!