Experts seek more time to comment on secret safety rule

By Mike Hall, AFL-CIO Web Log, 9/9/09

Scientists, public health experts and others are trying to put the brakes on the Bush administration’s rush to change a workplace safety rule that could lead to increased exposure of workers to dangerous chemicals and toxins. The proposed rule also would make it more difficult for the next administration to enact new safety rules.

In a letter to the Department of Labor, the group of experts say the administration has truncated the comment period normally allowed for such a broad and important change in safety standards.

They are asking for an additional 60 days to submit comments and testimony about the rule that would change the way risks posed by dangerous workplace chemicals are measured. The proposal also would add an extra step to the rulemaking process for any new regulation restricting the amount of chemical and toxic substance exposure to workers.

The letter, signed by 39 representatives of the Duke University Medical Center, Boston University of School of public health, Sciencecorps and the Appalachian Center for the Economy and Environment, states:

The complexity of the issues involved in this rulemaking warrant a more detailed analysis than can be accomplished in 30 days.…Analyzing these details in the context of worker protection laws and the reality of occupational safety and health research increases the complexity of the task.

The group also says the Labor Department has failed to post much of the background information and research it cites as justification for the proposed changes.

The rule was pushed by Bush political appointees over the objections of career health and safety professionals and kept secret until media reports in July revealed the plan. Workplace safety advocates say the administration is attempting to rush through changes in the risk assessment and exposure standard that have been long sought by the business community.

When the proposed rule was finally published Aug. 28 in the Federal Register, the Labor Department allowed a scant 30-day window for comments from workplace safety advocates, scientists, health care experts and the public.

Legislation (H.R. 6660) is pending in the House that would prohibit the Labor Department from finalizing the rule.

Bush’s rush to enact the toxins exposure rule comes while dozens of important workplace safety and health rules remain buried in the administration. Those proposals include a crane safety standard, as well as rules to protect workers from exposure to dangerous substances and chemicals such as silica (which can cause serious respiratory disease), diacetyl (a flavoring additive linked to “popcorn lung”) and beryllium (a light metal that can cause lung damage, especially to metal and dental workers).

In addition, the Bush administration refuses to develop rules on combustible dust that could help prevent explosions like the one in February at an Imperial Sugar plant that killed 13 workers.