Documents Reveals Labor Effort to Add More Hoops to Regulating Workplace Toxins

By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 24, 2008; 5:43 PM

A copy of a eleventh-hour proposed rule that would make it harder to set new safety rules limiting workers' exposure to chemicals on the job has been obtained by the Washington Post.

The Labor Department has refused to discuss or disclose the proposal, which has spurred anger and condemnation from unions, Democrats in Congress and public health scientists. They claim the rule is a "midnight regulation" that will block the next administration's efforts to reduce workers illnesses and deaths.

As The Post first reported on Wednesday, the department began actively working on drafting new rules for measuring risk and setting health standards for chemicals in September 2007, but did not disclose it was looking at the idea, as required, in either its December 2007 or May 2008 reports on regulations it was considering. The proposal calls for adding another procedural step and round of challenges before the department can consider regulations for a workplace toxin. It also challenges the agency's longstanding assumption that it should set limits low enough to protect workers who could be exposed to a toxin every day on the job and work for 45 years.

The Bush administration has adopted only one regulation to limit exposure to a chemical, hexavalent chromium, and that was under court order. This new rule propsal has become the department's top priority in the final months of the administration, although proposed worker safety rules for limiting exposure to beryllium, silica and combustible dust remain works in progress after years of being under consideration.

The chairmen of the Senate and House labor committees demanded Wednesday that Labor Secretary Elaine Chao withdraw the proposal.

They said Chao's agency violated the rules requiring federal agencies to alert the public twice a year to any directives it was considering, and they also asked her to turn over internal documents of any meetings or communications Labor officials had with business or outside groups relating to the proposal.

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