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U.S. Rushes to Change Workplace Toxin Rules

Furchtgott-Roth did not mention in the article that she was one of the consultants who worked with Labor beginning in September 2007 on a $349,000 outside study of the risk-assessment process.

The OMB has been trying to address the issue of risk assessment since 2006, when it attempted to set new standards governing how a host of federal agencies reach their conclusions. That plan was withdrawn after the National Academy of Sciences called it "fatally flawed" because it lacked scientific grounding.

Early this year, Deborah Misir, a political deputy in Labor's office of the assistant secretary for policy, worked with the OMB to draft a new risk-assessment rule. A former ethics adviser to Bush, Misir had complained that the department's assumption of a 45-year working life overstated the risk of exposure.

Typically, before drafting a rule, agency officials consult with staff members, lawyers and outside experts, and sometimes industry and other interested parties. But Misir initially did not consult scientific and workplace-risk-assessment experts in OSHA and the Mine Safety and Health Administration, according to sources briefed on her work.

Charles Gordon, a recently retired Labor Department lawyer who worked on regulations in OSHA's solicitor's office for 32 years, said the policy office does not usually take the lead on rules involving risk assessments. "Normally, issues of health science like risk assessment are performed by OSHA and MSHA, that have statutory authority and expertise in the area," Gordon said.

Misir waited until April to seek comments from the department's experts. They objected to both the legality and substance of the proposal and recommended that Chao not pursue such a rule, according to the sources.

A few weeks later, when the agency listed regulations "under development or review" in its semiannual agenda, the risk-assessment proposal was not included. But a draft was circulating among a small group of advisers, according to a date-stamped copy obtained by The Post.

In spring 2007, the department listed 38 potential workplace-safety regulations as works in progress. Among its priorities were a proposal to reduce deaths and injuries from cranes and derricks, following a spate of fatal accidents; a new rule to reduce illnesses from silica, which can cause respiratory diseases; and a proposal to change regulation of beryllium, a light metal that can harm the lungs of dental and metal workers.

But virtually overnight, changing the risk-assessment process became the agency's top priority for workplace regulations. The July submission of its proposal broke a deadline set by White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten, who had ordered that all agencies submit proposed regulations before June 1 and "resist the historical tendency of administrations to increase regulatory activity in their final months."

Nevertheless, the OMB agreed to work with Labor on the proposal. The July 7 posting on its Web site shocked many inside and outside the agency who had been following the events.

"This is flat-out secrecy," said Peg Seminario, director of health and safety policy at the AFL-CIO. "They are trying to essentially change the job safety and health laws and reduce required workplace protections through a midnight regulation."

Seminario said she was stunned that the administration would consider the rule its top priority, when for years it has "slow-walked and stalled" safety rules that would reduce worker deaths and injuries from diacetyl and beryllium.

David Michaels, an epidemiologist and workplace safety professor at George Washington University's School of Public Health, said the rule would add another barrier to creating safety standards, in the name of improving them.

"This is a guarantee to keep any more worker safety regulation from ever coming out of OSHA," Michaels said. "This is being done in secrecy, to be sprung before President Bush leaves office, to cripple the next administration."

Research editor Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.

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