U.S. Rushes to Change Workplace Toxin Rules

By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Political appointees at the Department of Labor are moving with unusual speed to push through in the final months of the Bush administration a rule making it tougher to regulate workers' on-the-job exposure to chemicals and toxins.

The agency did not disclose the proposal, as required, in public notices of regulatory plans that it filed in December and May. Instead, Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao's intention to push for the rule first surfaced on July 7, when the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) posted on its Web site that it was reviewing the proposal, identified only by its nine-word title.

The text of the proposed rule has not been made public, but according to sources briefed on the change and to an early draft obtained by The Washington Post, it would call for reexamining the methods used to measure risks posed by workplace exposure to toxins. The change would address long-standing complaints from businesses that the government overestimates the risk posed by job exposure to chemicals.

The rule would also require the agency to take an extra step before setting new limits on chemicals in the workplace by allowing an additional round of challenges to agency risk assessments.

The department's speed in trying to make the regulatory change contrasts with its reluctance to alter workplace safety rules over the past 7 1/2 years. In that time, the department adopted only one major health rule for a chemical in the workplace, and it did so under a court order.

In an interview, Labor's assistant secretary for policy, Leon R. Sequeira, said officials did not disclose their interest in the rule change earlier because they were uncertain until recently whether they wanted to follow through and pursue a regulation.

But the fast-track approach has brought criticism from workplace-safety advocates, unions and Democrats in Congress. Some accuse the Bush administration of working secretly to give industry a parting gift that will help it delay or block safety regulations after President Bush leaves office.

"It's an insult to America's workers for the Department of Labor to be spending its time in the last year of this administration allegedly fine-tuning the details of how to do these regulations when, other than the one ordered by a court, they have issued no major worker-health regulations," said Adam Finkel, a professor at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey who is a former health standards director at Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration. "The reality is there's a great need to light a fire under this moribund agency to do something -- anything -- to protect workers."

Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said: "The fact that the Department of Labor seems to be engaged in secret rulemaking makes me highly suspicious that some high-level political appointees are up to no good. This Congress will not stand for the gutting of health and safety protections as the Bush administration heads out the door."

Sequeira said department policy prevents him from discussing the details of a draft rule, how it was written and by whom, until it is reviewed by the OMB. The public will have 30 days to critique the draft after it is published.

"It's premature to comment," he said. "People appear to be making assumptions about what's in the draft."

Last week, the proposal was defended in an opinion piece in the New York Sun written by Diana Furchtgott-Roth, a fellow at the conservative-leaning Hudson Institute. She wrote that it would bring a "rationalized approach" to risk assessments and probably move away from the incorrect assumption in current rules that workers stay in a job, with daily exposure to the same chemicals or toxins, for as long as 45 years.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company