On Workers' Memorial Day, Let's Remember that Regulatory Delay Can Be Deadly

 At long last, a committee on Capitol Hill held a hearing to showcase how important health and safety standards are in protecting the lives of all Americans. On April 19, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), Chair of the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, convened the hearing to highlight the devastating impact of regulatory delay on the lives of workers and their families. Driving the point home, relatives of workers who died on the job packed the hearing room, holding pictures of their late loved ones for all to see.

As OMB Watch Regulatory Policy Director, I testified at the hearing and pointed out to the committee that in the 1970s, before Congress and the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) started erecting barriers to health and safety rulemaking, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) adopted several standards – covering asbestos, vinyl chloride, arsenic, lead, and cotton dust – in just a year or two. These standards have saved thousands of lives.

But since that time, Congress has adopted a series of laws that require analysis upon analysis of the so-called "burdens" of standards and safeguards. And since the early 1980s, OIRA has reviewed "significant rules" to determine whether the benefits of such rules justify the costs. These regulatory analyses have slowed the pace of rulemaking dramatically. It can take OSHA more than a decade to finalize a health and safety standard. Since 2001, OSHA has regulated only three major hazards. Standards for silica, beryllium, and combustible dust have been delayed for years, sometimes decades. More than 400 OSHA standards regulating chemical exposures are based on science from the 1960s; courts have prevented OSHA from adopting more current consensus standards to replace these out-of-date exposure limits.

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report issued the same day as the hearing reinforced these points. The GAO found that, on average, it now takes OSHA almost eight years to issue a health and safety standard. Yet the House keeps passing anti-regulatory proposals that would either bring the regulatory process to a full stop or bog it down with even more procedural hurdles.

These delays cost lives. Researchers estimate that occupational illness and injuries cost $250 billion annually. Most of these injuries and illnesses are preventable. The longer OSHA delays standards, the more workers die or suffer serious illnesses and injuries.

For example, the agency estimates that its silica rule, which would reduce exposure to fibers that damage lungs and cause cancer has been under consideration since 1974, would save 60 lives each year. By the time OSHA finally adopts a reduced exposure limit for silica – if it ever does – at least 2,400 workers will have needlessly died. Many of these workers are bricklayers who, as Tom Ward testified at Thursday’s hearing, are likely to die young from silicosis, like his father did.

Others will die in dust explosions while OSHA debates whether to regulate combustible dust, even though the U.S. Chemical Safety Board urged the agency to do so years ago. After stakeholders recommended a consensus rule, it took OSHA another six years to regulate cranes and derricks. During that time, more than 500 workers died in crane accidents.

On Workers' Memorial Day (April 28), as we remember those who were killed on the job, we should also remember that workplace health and safety standards save lives. We need standards that protect workers from toxic and other hazards at work. We need to stop the toll of delay and put needed worker protections in place as quickly as we can.

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