Labor unions uneasy as OSHA withdraws proposed rules

Labor is growing increasingly concerned as a number of proposed rules that were designed to protect workers' health and safety have been withdrawn by the Obama administration.

They see the actions as fitting into a new tack by President Obama to soothe businesses’ concerns while the agencies fear tough new oversight from Congress with Republicans now in control of the House.

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“All of these actions are coming because of the November elections and the fierce business opposition to anything,” said Peg Seminario, the AFL-CIO’s director of health and safety. “Just because the Chamber of Commerce and other business groups scream doesn't mean there is a legitimate reason to retreat. There are real negative impacts here that can harm workers.”

On Jan. 19, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) withdrew a proposed reinterpretation that would have strengthened its workplace noise standard. On Tuesday, the agency temporarily withdrew a proposed regulation that would restore a column on employer injury and illness logs to record their workers’ musculoskeletal disorders.

Seminario said she doesn’t think there is “a direct cause and effect” between the withdrawn rules and Obama’s new executive order on regulations, which was announced alongside a new regulatory review, but expressed labor’s worries about the situation.

“We are greatly concerned and dismayed by both of these actions. Clearly, the political environment has changed, but the need to protect workers has not,” Seminario said.

In a statement to The Hill, David Michaels, assistant secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health, said the agency did not make political considerations when withdrawing the proposed rules.

“No. We fully expect and welcome Congressional oversight,” Michaels said. “Our goal in withdrawing these actions was to ensure that all affected stakeholders fully understand our regulatory and enforcement initiatives.”

In withdrawing the proposals, OSHA wanted more time to dispel myths and concerns about them, he said.

On its reinterpretation of its noise standard, Michaels said the proposal “requires much more public outreach and devotion of the agency’s resources if it is to get full input from all parties who would be affected.”

On the musculoskeletal injuries proposal, Michaels said there was “a high level of concern and confusion among small businesses” and that greater input from them would be needed before the agency could move forward.

Proposals dealing with musculoskeletal disorders have been contentious in the past. With business group backing, a Republican-led Congress overturned the Clinton administration's ergonomics rule in 2001.

Michaels said OSHA is not giving up on either proposal and is still looking at ways to prevent hearing loss for workers as well as have their workplace injuries more thoroughly reported by employers.

Business groups have cheered the moves by OSHA to withdraw the proposed rules.

“We hope that these first two steps are a signal to the business community, and employers in general, that OSHA will ‘stop, look and listen,’” said Joe Trauger, vice president of human resources policy for the National Association of Manufacturers.

But Trauger said the actions by OSHA are not enough because other proposed rules are still being readied that could burden business. He pointed to a regulation being developed by the agency that would have employers find and fix their own workplace hazards under what will be called an injury and illness prevention plan.

Trauger said he hoped OSHA would work with business groups to mitigate their concerns. He said the administration might be taking a different tack on regulations to help create more jobs.

“Perhaps the administration has looked at the first two years and realized that the job growth is not as robust as they hoped and that a different approach is warranted,” Trauger said.

Some unions could see their members particularly affected by the withdrawn regulations, such as the one requiring employers to track musculoskeletal injuries. Karen Higgins, co-president of the 160,000-member strong National Nurses United, said workers in her profession often suffer from workplace injuries and that it is vital to track this type of information to prevent future accidents.

“We are not going to be able to do that if we don't have the information to use. This is a huge issue,” Higgins said.

Higgins, an intensive care unit nurse in Boston, Mass., said studies estimate that, on average, a nurse will lift and haul 1.8 tons during an eight-hour shift. She said recording injuries suffered by nurses could help hospitals save money in the future.

“In the long haul, it would give us important information. And in the long haul, it would save employers a significant amount of money for loss of employees or increased worker comp,” Higgins said.

OSHA is not the only agency taking a step back on proposed regulations. For example, the Food and Drug Administration has withdrawn its guidelines for restaurants in labeling their menus with nutritional information, which stems from the new healthcare reform law.