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AFL-CIO Now

Workers Dying as Safety Rules Stall

Chemical Safety Board photo

AFL-CIO Health and Safety Director Peg Seminario told a U.S. Senate committee on Thursday that the current system for developing and issuing worker and workplace safety rules is:

A broken and dysfunctional system, which is failing to protect workers and costing workers’ lives.

Testifying before the Judiciary’s Oversight, Federal Rights and Agency Actions Subcommittee, she said that during the first decade of  the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA's) existence (1970–1980), it took an average of one to three years for major rules to go from proposal to implementation, including rules on asbestos, cotton dust, lead and other hazards. That was under both Republican and Democrat administrations.

But from 1981 to 2010, the average start-to-finish time for new safety rules is eight years, she said.

The main cause, Seminario said, for the slow process has been increased industry opposition and ever increasing and burdensome regulatory requirements and steps, imposed mostly by Republican administrations or legislation.

But there are some safety standards that have been or were stuck in regulatory limbo for even longer, Seminario told senators. For example, rules covering workers entering confined spaces such as enclosed tanks where deadly vapors and gases could be was first proposed in 1993 but is still not final. Rule making on Silica dust first began in 1997 and on crane and derrick safety in 2002.

The impact of these delays is inadequate protection for workers and leads to unnecessary deaths, injuries and illnesses.

For example, in the eight years (2002–2010) it took for the final crane and derrick rule to be implanted, Seminario said:

176 workers died in crane accidents that would have been prevented if the crane and derricks standard had been in place.

A standard for Silica dust is still not in place despite statistics showing 143 workers a year die of the lung disease silicosis and as many as 7,300 new cases are diagnosed each year. Seminario said:

When the Obama administration took office in 2009, the AFL-CIO was hopeful the OSHA silica standard and other needed rules that were also long overdue would move forward. And for two years, that was indeed the case.

But that standard has been held up by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) since February 2011.  

It is worth noting that the OMB review of the silica proposed rule coincided with the commencement of the 112th Congress, when Republicans took control of the House of Representatives with regulatory reform and rollbacks at the top of their agenda. In response to their attacks and business opposition, the regulatory process, particularly for worker protection regulations came to a halt.

But even if OMB releases its hold on the silica dust standard, said Seminario, “the rule will have no effect and impact unless and until it is finalized, a process that will still take years.”

This will only be possible if the Obama administration decides that protecting workers from deadly silica dust is a priority and commits to completing the regulation before the end of its second term.

Republican lawmakers have proposed even more roadblocks for worker safety and health rules that, said Seminario, “would bring standard setting for worker safety to a grinding halt and make it impossible for OSHA to issue needed worker safety and health protections.”

To begin fixing the workers' broken safety and health regulatory system, she told the panel, “there must be a renewed commitment, both from the Congress and from the administration….Protecting the safety and health of workers and the public must be a priority.”

Without political leadership and support for needed rules, corporate opposition coupled with the quagmire that is the regulatory process will make it impossible to complete and issue these safeguards.     

Read her full testimony.

Also today, President Obama ordered federal agencies to develop new rules to address the handling and storage of industrial chemicals such as the ammonia nitrate fertilizer that caught fire and exploded in West, Texas, killing 15 and leveling large portions of the town in April.

AFL-CIO President Trumka said he hopes today’s order will "spur action to modernize chemical safety regulations, including OSHA’s process safety management standard, which the AFL-CIO and unions have been seeking for many years."

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