The Progressive


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For Immediate Release
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OSHA Standard-Setting Broken and Moving in Wrong Direction

Backlog of Thousands of Chemicals Worsened by Constipated Process and Timidity


National workplace exposure standards for
thousands of chemicals have not been promulgated and hundreds of
existing standards are much weaker than needed to protect workers.
Yet, the Obama administration is pursuing policies that will slow the
glacial pace of Occupational Health & Safety Administration (OSHA)
exposure rulemaking even further, according to Public Employees for
Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

Compared to
safety regulation, OSHA has lagged badly in health regulation. Today,
OSHA's health rulemaking docket is so far behind that it is
overwhelmed. Save for a handful of substances, the vast majority of
Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs) have not been updated since 1968.
In the late 1980s, OSHA tried to tighten about 420 PELs without using
the modern risk assessment methods the Supreme Court had already
required in a 1980 decision, and these limits were struck down en masse
in 1992.

During the ensuing 18 years, OSHA has made scant progress on the health front:

  • OSHA has issued no new health standards since 1998, save for one ordered by a court;
  • In
    that one case, the resultant chromium standard was the weakest
    toxic-substance standard ever issued by a federal agency, allowing
    approximately 80% of all the industrial users of chromium to weaken the
    few controls they already had put in place. This new limit consigns
    roughly an additional 4% of exposed employees to lung cancer; and
  • Existing
    standards for hundreds of known toxics are woefully inadequate. For
    example, rulemakings to update inadequate standards for silica and
    beryllium (both of which cause fatal lung disease) have been stalled
    since the 1980s. Another example is diacetyl (known since 2001 to
    cause bronchiolitis obliterans, or "popcorn lung disease" in workers
    exposed to this artificial butter flavoring). OSHA fruitlessly
    promised action on diacetyl more than 5 years ago.

standard-setting is hopelessly backlogged with little chance of
catching up unless the new OSHA leadership," stated PEER Policy
Director Erica Rosenberg, pointing out that workplace exposures are now
the eighth leading cause of death in the U.S., resulting in more than
40,000 premature deaths per year or roughly ten times the death toll
from industrial accidents. "Unless OSHA makes its health mission a top
priority, American workers will remain unprotected from a growing array
of toxic substances on the job."

Despite this huge
backlog, the Obama administration is adding extra review processes that
will further delay every long-overdue health regulation currently in
the pipeline. In June, OSHA announced it would convene two special
peer review panels per standard to review both the science and the
economics before proposed standards appear in the Federal Register.

OSHA is unusual among federal agencies in that its regulatory proposals
are subject to a public hearing in front of a judge in which anyone can
challenge the scientific or other rationale for proposals. This
adjudicated process is a more daunting and rigorous form of peer review
than what occurs in academia.

"OSHA has let self-proclaimed 'experts' on the outside run roughshod
over its own career scientists for far too long," said Dr. Adam Finkel,
a risk assessment expert in academia, a former OSHA Director of Health
Standards Programs and a member of the PEER Board of Directors, noting
the agenda for a March 4th public hearing (called "OSHA Listens")
includes suggestions for ideas to address "the length and difficulty of
the current OSHA rulemaking process." "Without cutting any corners in
its use of the best scientific and economic information, OSHA can put
its life-saving regulatory proposals before the public."

In its testimony next week, among other recommendations, PEER is
calling upon new Assistant Secretary David Michaels to cancel the
optional peer reviews for the silica, beryllium, diacetyl, and other


See OSHA double peer review schedule for pending standards

Look at the "silent epidemic" from occupational exposures

View the Agenda for March 4th "OSHA Listens" session

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is a national alliance of local state and federal resource professionals. PEER's environmental work is solely directed by the needs of its members. As a consequence, we have the distinct honor of serving resource professionals who daily cast profiles in courage in cubicles across the country.