By David Michaels

Following up on a powerful indictment of OSHA’s failure to protect workers from diacetyl and other hazards published two days ago in the New York Times, today’s edition of the newspaper has a scathing editorial on the demise of OSHA under the Bush Administration. The editorial writers particularly go after OSHA Assistant Secretary Edwin Foulke, whom they refer to as “one of the most zealous of the antiregulatory ideologues.”

The problem goes beyond the actions (or inactions) of one anti-regulatory zealot – OSHA has been beaten down and handcuffed for so long, even well-meaning regulators would have trouble getting the agency to work well.

Celeste Monforton and I first identified the failure of OSHA to do anything about flavoring workers’ lung disease and FOIA’d the documents cited by the Times in 2004, long before Mr. Foulke came to OSHA. We first wrote about OSHA’s lack of response in an academic paper we published two years ago. Unfortunately, we entitled the paper “Scientific evidence in the regulatory system: Manufacturing uncertainty and the demise of the formal regulatory system,” (PDF here) and it was widely ignored until recently, perhaps because it had such a boring title. Since then, we’ve posted a tremendous amount of material up on SKAPP’s website, using diacetyl as a case study in regulatory failure.

Its very gratifying to see that a national discussion devoted to examining the crisis we identified and have been compiling information about.

Here’s the full text of the New York Times editorial:

Crippling Government From Within

The Bush administration has proved indefatigable at finding industry foxes to upend the regulatory chicken coops. The result has been an undermining of restraints on everything from strip miners to long-haul truckers and corporate executives intent on consumer-unfriendly mergers.One of the most zealous of the antiregulatory ideologues is Edwin Foulke, tapped by President Bush last year to run the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. As South Carolina’s Republican Party chairman and an anti-union stalwart, Mr. Foulke worked tirelessly to weaken the agency’s enforcement authority on workplace safety. Now that he is OSHA’s chief, he is moving even more aggressively away from regulations in favor of corporations’ pledges to police themselves.

The dangers of a do-next-to-nothing OSHA were described in searching detail by Stephen Labaton of The Times in a report focusing on a life-threatening lung disease suffered by workers at microwave popcorn factories who regularly inhale a butter-flavor additive, diacetyl. The problem first turned up seven years ago, with some workers needing lung transplants. Yet OSHA failed to mandate safety standards or step up plant inspections.

An OSHA inspector sent to a plant three years after workers began getting sick certified that it complied with regulations — and cited air sampling done four years earlier by an insurer. Another inspector was dispatched to conclude that even if there was a problem, nothing could be done. Why? Because a standard defining safe limits for diacetyl had never been written — by OSHA.

President Bush blessed the shameful retreat by OSHA early on, signing the Republican Congress’s repeal of an ergonomics regulation for workers. Corporate gratitude has been clear.

In the Bush years, Republicans have reaped most of $630 million in donations from the three biggest industries regulated by OSHA: transportation, agribusiness and construction. Those industries obviously like what they see and hear from Mr. Foulke, who can’t emphasize enough that he “firmly believes in limited government.”

Foulke’s antipathy to regulation is not the only factor making it difficult for OSHA to do its job. As Frank Mirer, who testified at the House subcommittee hearing on OSHA earlier this week, has explained, the past decades have seen the erection of a host of new hurdles that OSHA must clear in order to issue new standards (see p. 13 of this PDF). Making OSHA leadership more responsive to urgent workplace hazards such as diacetyl is a crucial step, though, and we’re glad the New York Times editorial board has joined us in pushing for much-needed change at this important agency.

David Michaels heads the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP) and is Professor and Associate Chairman in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services.

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