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)  (Link here, select DOL) or (screenshot)

Whenever the term risk assessment is uttered by the Bush Admininstration, I know they are up to no good.  Recall their earlier effort at a major overhaul of agency’s risk assessment procedures; this was a proposal that was long on new one-size-fits-all requirements for agencies involved in health, safety and environmental protection, but woefully lacking in details about the alleged problem it was designed to fix.  More importantly, it would have added new steps to the rulemaking process, making a dysfunctional system more so, and creating administrative obstacles for health protective rules.  Thankfully, a failing grade by the National Academy of Sciences forced OMB to junk it

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?

Could this be OIRA’s Susan Dudley teaming up with Labor Secretary Chao for a last ditch effort to impose their anti-worker, anti-public health philosophy on OSHA and MSHA rulemaking on health hazards?  

I first became suspicious of Ms. Dudley’s views in 2006 after reviewing some of her writing on occupational health hazards.  In one, “Defining What to Regulate: Silica and the Problem of Regulatory Categorization” (with Andrew P. Morriss, in Administrative Law Review, Summer 2006). I was appalled to read her perilous misunderstanding of silicosis, evidenced by statements such as:

‘There are serious problems in identifying the cause of lung damage from silica exposure,’ and the scientific evidence ‘comes from extremely limited sources”

Ms. Dudley followed a script popularized by the tobacco industry: when faced with regulation to protect the public’s health, raise doubt and manufacture uncertainty about the scientific evidence.  When business lobbyists and their advocates in senior government jobs start pushing “new and “improved” requirements for agency risk assessments, workers should run the other way!  Workers’ health suffers because policymakers delay protections while more study, more deliberation, more debate takes place.

With respect to just one workplace health hazard—respirable silica—Ms. Dudley asserted that a workplace regulation to prevent silicosis would be premature because ‘we do not know whether particular forms of silica are harmful” and the scientific evidence “comes from extremely limited sources.”  

How does she define “limited”???  The American Thoracic Society’s 1997 official statement on the health effects of exposure to respirable crystalline silica includes more than 140 references, and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s health hazard review lists nearly 500 scientific papers and documents to support its findings.

Although I’m suspicious that OIRA’s Susan Dudley has a role in this Department of Labor proposed rule, I don’t have any information to confirm it.  It’s possible that this is a brainchild of Secretary Chao and her political advisors.  Who at the Department of Labor has a particular history of attempting to “minimize regulatory burdens”?

The bio for Ms. Suey Howe, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy says she:

“came to the Department from the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Office of Advocacy, where she was Director of the Office of Interagency Affairs. In that capacity, Ms. Howe oversaw a team of regulatory experts who reviewed existing and proposed laws and regulations for their impact on small businesses. Ms. Howe prioritized her team’s involvement in agency rulemakings, and managed development of policy recommendations and negotiation strategies designed to help federal agencies minimize their regulatory burden on small businesses. She was the senior legal and regulatory policy adviser to the Chief Counsel for Advocacy.”

Prior to this, she was the

“director of federal regulations for a national trade association representing construction contractors, subcontractors and material suppliers, and OSHA regulatory specialist for a Washington, D.C.-based law firm.”

Despite the Secretary of Labor’s attempt to make this sound harmless, I suspect that her proposed rule on “Requirements for DOL Agencies’ Assessment of Occupational Health Risks” is directed specifically at the methods used by OSHA and MSHA to assess health risks to workers. 

How much do you want to bet that the career scientific staff at these agencies have not seen this proposal?  If this regulatory brainchild is so important, why wasn’t it listed in the Secretary of Labor’s most recent regulatory agenda, published in May 2008??

So, here we have again the same old, same old:  Much-needed regulations to protect workers from lung cancer, silicosis, bronchiolitis obliterans, hearing loss and other seriously disorders languish in the Department of Labor for decades (seriously!).  They throw a crumb to workers every six months by listing certain hazards on their regulatory agenda, trying to convince us that they intend at some time to address these problems.  But, when it comes to some mystery proposal of the anti-regulatory ilk, there’s not even a peep that it’s in the pipeline, and then POOF! it’s already at OMB for its blessing.  Isn’t that predictable.

So, does anyone have any information about what this draft proposal says?

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Celeste Monforton, MPH is with the Project on Scientific Knowlege and Public Policy at George Washington University School of Public Health.  She worked at OSHA (1991-1995) and MSHA (1996-2001) .

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