Labor unions push White House on stalled worker safety rule

Labor unions and safety advocates are applying new pressure on the Obama administration to issue a long-sought worker protection rule that industry groups say will cost billions of dollars to implement.

Decades in the making, the proposal to set new limits on workers’ exposure to harmful silica has languished since February 2011 at the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), where officials say it is under review.

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“It’s the epitome of how government should not work — there’s no transparency,” said Randy Rabinowitz, director of regulatory policy for the Center for Effective Government, formerly known as OMB Watch.

An estimated 1.7 million workers are in contact with silica each year and are at risk of developing health problems, according to the Laborers International Union of North America. 

The union, with public support from the AFL-CIO, is gathering signatures for a petition to force the White House to respond to concerns about the delay. A White House issuance of a proposed rule would be a major step forward for proponents, though it would reflect only the start of the rule-making process in which the provisions could be changed.

“The thing has been held up at the White House for two years now,” said Scott Schneider, director of occupational safety and health for the Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund of North America. “Releasing it and getting it published as a proposed rule is just the beginning.”

Drafted by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the proposal would limit construction and maritime workers’ exposure to crystalline silica, a common element in the earth’s crust. Silica dust is often released during jackhammering or other activities involving heavy machinery at construction sites and shipyards.

After a series of delays, OMB is scheduled to post the proposed rule in March, but it is unclear whether that deadline is realistic. Agency officials did not respond to a request for comment.

OSHA has projected that the rule would cost more than $100 million to implement, but early industry estimates placed the price tag far higher.

A 2011 report from a working group created by the American Chemistry Council (ACC) estimated the new standards would have a total annual economic impact of almost $5.5 billion and cost the industry upwards of $30 million in lost output over 10 years while eliminating 170,000 jobs.

Many industry groups argue that current silica standards are sufficient, rendering health risks negligible when followed.

“We believe that a new standard is unnecessary and that the best way to further reduce silica-related health effects and protect workers is stronger enforcement of the existing standard,” said Jackson Morrill, director for Chemical Products & Technology at the ACC. “Significantly increasing the regulatory burden could threaten tens of thousands of jobs and is likely to present enormous feasibility challenges in its implementation at a significant cost.”

The National Industrial Sand Association (NISA) also favors retaining the current standard, but it supports the establishment of systems to monitor exposure and potential health issues, according to Mark Ellis, the association’s president. Companies that voluntarily keep workers’ exposure at half the current limit would not be required to implement the monitoring systems.

Calls for tougher silica standards date back to the 1970s, when the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommended that the limit be significantly reduced. The group determined that crystalline silica is “associated with silicosis, lung cancer, pulmonary tuberculosis and airways diseases.”

OSHA did not act then, nor did it following another push for more stringent standards in the mid 1990s.

By placing the item on its regulatory agenda in 2011, the administration signaled a willingness to move ahead with the rule. That year, at least 50 people from at least 35 organizations met with OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) in nine disclosed meetings about the substance, disclosure records show.

More than a dozen trade groups and K Street shops reported lobbying on the issue in 2011.

The flurry of activity was followed by months of apparent inaction at OMB. It has since become a cause célèbre of pro-regulation groups and safety advocates, who have criticized the administration for slow-walking controversial regulations during Obama’s first term.

Some of the frustration was directed at former OIRA administrator Cass Sunstein, a devotee of cost-benefit analysis who served as regulatory gatekeeper until his departure from the administration in August.

Critics also questioned whether the delays were politically motivated.

“I think it’s obvious that it must have been that because there is no other logical reason to stall it,” Rabinowitz said. “Cass Sunstein is no longer there and the election is over, so a lot of us would be hopeful something will come out.”

The campaign to collect signatures in support of new silica standards is the latest push to force the White House’s hand on the rule. Proponents have until Monday to gather 25,000 signatures, which would require the White House to respond.

The petition gained fewer than 4,000 signatures in its first three weeks but picked up steam in recent days, after the AFL-CIO joined the cause and sent emails to many of the union’s almost 12 million members urging them to sign on.

As of Tuesday afternoon, roughly 6,200 people had signed the petition.