House bill would block OSHA regulations; AFL-CIO cries foul

Sparking criticism from organized labor, House Republicans have unveiled a spending bill that would block the Obama administration from issuing controversial workplace safety and health regulations.

Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.), chairman of the House Labor, Health and Human Services Subcommittee, has crafted a bill that would block a handful of federal safety regulations and decrease discretionary spending levels. The riders on the regulations have quickly attracted criticism from the Obama administration and the AFL-CIO.

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Rehberg's measure comes as the debate over federal regulations and their effect on job creation is heating up. Republicans have repeatedly said federal standards are an enormous burden on employers, a claim they plan to make throughout the 2012 campaign season. Organized labor scoffs at those assertions while the administration has launched its own effort to cut down on unnecessary government standards.

The proposed riders in Rehberg's bill would restrict the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) from employer mandates on recording musculoskeletal injuries and developing injury and illness prevention programs, among others. Rehberg has launched a Senate bid, aiming to defeat Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) next year.

The restrictions drew fire from Democrats at a House Education and Workforce subcommittee hearing on Wednesday.

OSHA administrator David Michaels strongly defended the safety regulations, saying, “OSHA regulations don’t kill jobs. They stop jobs from killing workers."

Peg Seminario, director, safety and health, AFL-CIO, said Friday that the riders are an obvious attempt to keep OSHA from moving forward to address certain safety and health issues.

“These are basic health and safety regulations,” Seminario said. “We see this as a very broad attack on the government, on OSHA, on their ability to protect workers.”

Employers are pushing back against the Obama administration’s calls for regulation, because they became accustomed to having no regulations under the Bush administration, Seminario said.

“For essentially eight years, there was a de facto moratorium on health and safety rules. I think employers got used to the fact that there were no regulations,” Seminario said. “They don’t want any new rules. They didn’t have any under Bush, and now they don’t want any more — period.”

During Wednesday's hearing Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), a longtime defender of OSHA, criticized the "irresponsible" appropriations measure.

Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.), chairman of the subcommittee on workforce protections, stressed that no one is questioning the need for OSHA. However, he indicated that costs of regulations can be significant and can cause employers to refrain from hiring new workers.

Rehberg's bill would also prohibit the agency from suspending a 1995 temporary exemption that allowed roofers to use slide guards, instead of conventional fall protection systems, when performing residential re-roofing and repairs.

Seminario noted that a rider in the appropriations bill would also block the Mine Safety and Health Administration from moving forward with a rule to protect miners from black lung.

It remains unclear whether these OSHA and MSHA riders will be signed into law. The spending bill that funds OSHA will look very different in the Senate, which is controlled by Democrats. And the administration is also expected to demand that the House riders be scrapped.

Seminario said she hopes the Obama administration will seek to eliminate all of the riders in talks with the GOP.

“Obviously, the GOP is trying to use this funding measure to push a very regressive policy agenda,” Seminario said. “We have to remember that the Republicans and Democrats reached some broad agreements on funding in the debt-ceiling debates. It seems that with the Republican proposal, that isn’t going to be the case, and there’s going to be another big fight.”

However, it is likely that Congress will pass a massive omnibus spending package later this year, which could divert the administration and Senate's attention to other controversial items.

The measure states that OSHA cannot initiate, develop, issue or enforce any significant rule without notifying the Appropriations Committee 30 days in advance. This stipulation could be detrimental to OSHA’s silica rule, which was submitted to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for review in February. The OMB’s review period was extended under executive order in May, but the time allotted for review has since run out.

OSHA claims that workers in jobs like blasting, stonecutting, tunneling and quarry work are at risk for silica exposure.

Even though OSHA has an exposure limit for crystalline silica, it determined that some workers are still exposed to high levels of the substance. The latest rule would require exposure monitoring, training, breathing protection, medical surveillance and work practices that limit exposure.

The agency has been working on its silica rule and its injury and illness prevention regulation for more than a decade. Michaels said that OSHA has reviewed a large amount of stakeholder input on its regulatory initiatives.

According to OSHA’s website, those exposed to silica over the course of a lifetime are at risk of developing silicosis, a potentially fatal lung disease. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified silica crystals as carcinogenic to humans, which may show a link between exposure to silica dust and cancer, Michaels said.

Rep. Larry Buschon (R-Ind.) on Wednesday questioned Michaels’ claim that silica dust may be linked to lung cancer, saying he hadn’t seen one case of lung cancer caused by silica exposure in 15 years as a surgeon.