Washington, DC — The new regulatory agenda for the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) will result in new worker protections against at most a small handful of health hazards by the end of the presidential term, leaving untouched the absence of standards for thousands of chemicals and hundreds of existing standards that are much weaker than needed to protect workers, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). While OSHA is beginning some new initiatives, it is also pushing back the deadlines for completing some ongoing health standards.
Published in the Federal Register on April 26, 2010, the OSHA regulatory agenda lays out what new rules the agency expects to finalize and under what schedule. The agenda does outline a new initiative on infectious disease control for health workers and begins a long process for issuing an omnibus “injury and illness prevention program standard” (that would, much like the food safety rules industry now operates under, allow each company to write its own plant-specific plans). At the same time, it would extend the rulemaking process for stricter limits on beryllium and silica – a substance whose dangers have been known since the Roman Empire.
This latest semiannual agenda is the third attempt by the Obama administration to lay out its plans. While a contrast from the almost total inaction during the last several years of the Clinton administration and all the Bush years, even if OSHA meets all its new deadlines, it will promulgate at most two or three new health standards by the time of the 2013 Inauguration. In a recent web-chat, OSHA Assistant Secretary David Michaels made clear that there would be scant room for expansion:
“This regulatory agenda only represents those items in which we are moving aggressively forward on at this time. OSHA does not have the resources to move forward aggressively on all rulemaking necessary to address all the pressing workplace health and safety hazards.”
“At the current rate of progress, the OSHA health standards backlog will only get worse,” stated PEER Policy Director Erica Rosenberg, noting that hundreds of new chemicals are introduced each year. “In most instances, OSHA is adding extra layers of review to a process that is already too long.”
Workplace exposures are now the eighth leading cause of death in the U.S., resulting in more than 40,000 premature deaths per year which amounts to roughly ten times the death toll from industrial accidents. Yet OSHA spends more than 90% of its budget on safety issues. Thus, a key issue is whether OSHA will grapple with what PEER calls “the silent epidemic” of job exposure-related deaths.
One major gap in OSHA’s rulemaking ability is the dearth of economists to do cost-benefit analyses. In addition to scientific analysis, standard-setting requires resource-intensive economic analysis. The agency is not moving to bring more economists in, nor does it appear to have a game plan for moving beyond a plodding chemical-by-chemical approach.
“I am concerned about OSHA’s commitment to completing what they have on their plate, let alone tackling an even more ambitious agenda,” said Dr. Adam Finkel, a risk assessment expert in academia, a former OSHA Director of Health Standards Programs, and a member of the PEER Board of Directors, who has outlined a plan for OSHA to modernize, broaden and expedite its standard-setting. “OSHA needs to avoid the mistakes made in the late 90’s of lowering expectations to the point where the finish line is no longer in view.”