Critics Say OSHA Takes Too Long on Safety Rules

By SAM HANANEL | April 23, 2012

The nation’s premier worker safety agency is taking too long to develop regulations to protect workers from dangerous chemicals and other on-the-job hazards, government auditors reported recently.

The Government Accountability Office found it takes an average of nearly eight years for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to develop and put workplace safety regulations in place.

That’s 50 percent longer than the Environmental Protection Agency takes to adopt new regulations and at least twice as long as the Transportation Department takes, according to the report from Congress’ investigative arm.

Critics told a Senate panel Thursday that the agency has become too cautious and is hamstrung by procedural and political roadblocks.

“We created barriers based on false alarms, and the need now is to lower them so that worker protection can proceed again without delay,” Michael Silverstein, former director of the Washington state OSHA program, said in prepared testimony to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. “It is no exaggeration to say that lives are at stake.”

OSHA officials blame the lengthy waits on greater procedural requirements, shifting priorities and a higher standard of judicial review than most federal agencies face. Heavy pressure and litigation from business groups has also taken a toll, they say.

Business groups say OSHA creates problems for itself by ignoring employer concerns when it develops new standards.

“Standards should not be issued merely for the sake of putting more rules on the books,” David Sarvadi of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said in prepared testimony. In many cases, the controls OSHA seeks to put in place are unproven, and the agency seems to want to issue more citations against employers, Sarvadi said.

Saying the government needs more regulations is fraught with political risk in an election year. GOP presidential hopefuls and Republican lawmakers have made an issue of what they say is over-regulation by the Obama administration. President Barack Obama signed an executive order last year requiring federal agencies to target and eliminate burdensome rules, even as they issue new ones.

Senate Democrats say the delays at OSHA are unacceptable while workers are being injured or killed. It took nearly a decade, for example, for OSHA to issue safety rules on construction cranes. In the meantime, several cranes toppled in accidents, and people were killed.

“It is simply unconscionable that workers must suffer while an OSHA rule is mired in bureaucracy,” said committee chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.

A quarter of OSHA safety rules approved since 1981 have taken more than a decade each to complete, with some being delayed nearly 20 years, according to the GAO report. The agency has studied the dangers of workplace exposure to silica dust – known to cause crippling lung disease and cancer – since 1974, but has yet to publish even a proposed regulation.

After putting out 47 new safety rules in the 1980s and 1990s, OSHA has slowed, approving just 11 new rules since then.

The GAO report recommended that OSHA officials collaborate more with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a federal research agency that makes workplace health and safety recommendations.

Some ideas would require congressional action, such as amending federal law to change the judicial standards OSHA rules have to meet.

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