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There's a mighty storm a brewin' in the occupational health world. It is always a marvel to us that no matter how jaded we think we are, there is always room for more indignation. It is the Bush administration's only form of renewable energy.

The issue first poked its head above water on July 8 when my colleague Celeste Monforton over at The Pump Handle noticed something suspicious on the website of the Office of Management and Budget's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA, pronounced oh-EYE-ra):

I found the most curious item on OMB OIRA’s webpage today, and my paranoia about end-of-the-term mischief by the Bush Administration kicked into high gear.  The item is listed as a proposed rule submitted to OIRA for review on July 7 titled:

“Requirements for DOL Agencies’ Assessment of Occupational Health Risks” (RIN: 1290-AA23)


This mysterious draft proposal at OMB makes me wonder whether this is the White House’s plan B for so-called “reforms” to agency risk assessments.  Let’s see:  they couldn’t impose their requirements agency-wide, so why not target specific agencies?  What better place than those pesky rules to protect workers’ from dangerous contaminants? (Celeste Monforton, Confined Space@The Pump Handle)

Once noticed, suspicion fell on the notorious McConnell-Chao Axis of Evil. Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) is Senate Minority Leader and represents the Kentucky coal industry in the Senate (what? you thought he represented the people of Kentucky?). Elaine Chao is his wife. She is also the Secretary of Labor in the Bush Administration. Both the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) are in her cabinet department. Husband and wife share lots of things (I know, bad visual), extending to staff members who move between McConnell's Senate office and Chao's Department of Labor office (e.g., McConnell's former legal advisor Leon Sequeira now reports directly to Chao as her Assistant Secretary for Policy). The McConnell-Chao tag team has been persistent in its attempts to weaken occupational health regulation, especially regarding mine safety. Mine safety -- as in coal mines. And Sequiera is their point man.

Celeste's astute suspicions have now been verified by the Washington Post's Carol Leonnig:

Political appointees at the Department of Labor are moving with unusual speed to push through in the final months of the Bush administration a rule making it tougher to regulate workers' on-the-job exposure to chemicals and toxins.

The agency did not disclose the proposal, as required, in public notices of regulatory plans that it filed in December and May. Instead, Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao's intention to push for the rule first surfaced on July 7, when the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) posted on its Web site that it was reviewing the proposal, identified only by its nine-word title.

The text of the proposed rule has not been made public, but according to sources briefed on the change and to an early draft obtained by The Washington Post, it would call for reexamining the methods used to measure risks posed by workplace exposure to toxins. The change would address long-standing complaints from businesses that the government overestimates the risk posed by job exposure to chemicals. (Carol Leonnig, WaPo)

Practically no new regulations to protect workers from known hazards ever emerge from the Black Hole that is the Bush administration. This includes urgent matters like crane and derrick safety standards (if you live in Manhattan you know what we are talking about), silicosis standards and beryllium standards -- "priorities" that have been "works in progress" for well over a year. Chao's department has only issued one health standard in 7-1/2 years, that one forced by court order. This proposed rule, however, has become a priority because its aim is to slow up everything else. The plan, which remains secret (but was leaked), adds a new mandatory step to the already lengthy rule-making process. Celeste Monforton estimates it will delay worker protections by 2 3 years, once a rule is proposed, no matter how wellunderstood the hazard. The extra step does nothing to increase worker protection but does allow the industry to keep operating in the interim in ways that increase their bottom line at the expense of workers' health. In addition, it alters the risk assessment framework to make it based on exposures from working in an industry for the industry average duration rather than the current benchmark of 45 years (based on entry into the job at age 20 and work until retirement at age 65). While 45 years is an over estimate of exposure for many workers (and thus adds a small safety factor for them), using the average means the risks based on cumulative exposure (as for miners) will be underestimated for all workers working longer than the average. Depending on the shape of the employment duration distribution for an industry this might be more or less than half the workers. As Celeste points out, this violates both Congress's stated intent and the spirit of the OSH Act of 1970 and the Mine Act of 1978 that require the Secretary of Labor (in this case McConnell spouse Elaine Chao) to set standards pertaining to:

“toxic materials or harmful physical agents” so that they protect against “material impairment of health or functional capacity…”

“even if such employee has regular exposure…for the period of his working lifetime.” (Celeste Monforton, The Pump Handle)

Once again the will of Congress and the law are being tossed on the garbage heap in the interests of corporate patrons. The Bush administration and Republican party hacks like McConnell and Chao seem intent on addressing the energy problem by killing the workers who mine the dirty coal that will also make the rest of us sick.

It's hard to understate the degree of outrage about this among occupational health and safety professionals and labor unions concerned about their members' health. George Miller (D-California) is introducing legislation (HR 6660) to block this monstrosity. We should ask both the Obama and McCain campaigns what their position is. It speak volumes about their true attitudes on energy policy, environmental and worker protection, the influence of corporate lobbyists and transparency in the framing of government regulations.

This technical sounding manipulation of Department of Labor rules regarding risk assessment methods may seem like a minor matter compared to other Big Issues hanging fire.
But its consequences are not just about screwing coal miners at the expense of coal operators, although McConnell-Chao have that as one of their immediate corrupt objective. The proposed changes will affect virtually every other occupational group: fire, police, health care workers, factory workers, service workers -- in short you and your children.

Outrage. It's a renewable resource.

Originally posted to revere on Fri Aug 01, 2008 at 06:58 AM PDT.

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