Workplace Safety

From the NYT:

“The Labor Department is racing to complete a new rule, strenuously opposed by President-elect Barack Obama, that would make it much harder for the government to regulate toxic substances and hazardous chemicals to which workers are exposed on the job.”

“The rule, which has strong support from business groups, says that in assessing the risk from a particular substance, federal agencies should gather and analyze “industry-by-industry evidence” of employees’ exposure to it during their working lives. The proposal would, in many cases, add a step to the lengthy process of developing standards to protect workers’ health.”

“Public health officials and labor unions said the rule would delay needed protections for workers, resulting in additional deaths and illnesses.”

Because regulating hazardous chemicals in the workplace is currently much too easy. For instance, OSHA has been working on a silica standard since 1994 (pdf), and hasn’t published it yet:

“OSHA identified silica as a priority for its rulemaking efforts in 1994. Ten years ago OSHA and NIOSH held a National Conference to Eliminate Silicosis. Silica has been on the OSHA regulatory calendar for almost ten years. A draft standard has been developed and was reviewed by SBA in 2003. A peer review of the health effects data was to be completed this month. Yet there is still no date certain for a proposed rule to be published. While we wait for OSHA to move forward, construction workers and others continue to suffer and die from debilitating lung diseases and cancer as a result of this delay.”

Nor has OSHA done anything on diacetyl, the flavoring that destroys people’s lungs:

“It was nearly 10 years ago when an alert physician in Missouri linked rare cases of the lung disease bronchiolitis obliterans to his patients’ workplace exposure at a microwave popcorn manufacturing plant. Soon after, the Missouri Department of Health (MDOH) contacted OSHA and NIOSH. Now, dozens of workers have been identified with the debilitating disease and others diagnosed with other respiratory impairments. OSHA previously told the Senators that it “intends to propose a permanent standard addressing the hazards of flavoring containing diacetyl,” but the wait continues.”

According to the AFL-CIO’s director of occupational safety and health (quoted in the NYT), the Bush administration has “failed to set any new OSHA health rules to protect workers, except for one issued pursuant to a court order.” Quite a record!

Spending mere decades deciding how to regulate workplace exposure to chemicals that can kill people is obviously much too hasty. We need to continue to let people die for centuries, if not millenia. And requiring that OSHA consider “industry-by-industry evidence” for each chemical sounds like just the ticket. After all, while mustard gas kills soldiers, do we actually know that it would kill people if we pumped it into an automobile assembly line? Do we have any evidence that cyanide can kill beauticians in particular? Don’t we need careful empirical studies before we leap to conclusions?

Come to think of it, do we have any evidence about what sorts of things might harm political appointees in the Labor Department, in particular? Aren’t we just getting ahead of the evidence when we assume, say, that they could be harmed by cruise missiles, or large banks of rotating knives deployed in their direction? If so, surely they wouldn’t have any objection to our carrying out a few little tests. After all, if it’s OK for the workers they are charged to protect, it must surely be OK for them.

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