Democrat Vows Bill to Block 'Secret Rule' on Workplace Toxins

Saturday, July 26, 2008

A congressional leader pledged yesterday to introduce legislation that would block an eleventh-hour proposal by the Labor Department that would make it more difficult to limit workers' exposure to chemicals on the job.

Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said he is determined to stop a "secret rule" that he described as a Bush administration effort to block the next president from trying to regulate industry and reduce deaths and illnesses caused by workplace toxins.

The Labor Department has refused to discuss or release the proposal, which was obtained by The Washington Post and detailed in a Wednesday article. Officials began developing the idea in September 2007 but did not disclose their interest as early as required. The rulemaking became known July 7, when a White House agency noted on its Web site that it had received a draft rule from Labor concerning risk assessments.

The proposed rule would add another step to the process of setting regulations for workplace chemicals, requiring that the department allow a new round of challenges to its staff risk assessments used to determine how much exposure to certain chemicals is unsafe.

The rule could also increase the chances that future chemical regulations would allow workers to come into contact with higher levels of toxins on the job than previously allowed. It challenges the agency's practice of setting limits based on the assumption that workers stay in the same job for 45 years, and recommends using industry-specific data about the much shorter periods that workers generally stay with the same employer.

Labor Department officials said criticism of the draft by public health scientists, unions and Democrats is speculative until the proposal is made public.

-- Carol D. Leonnig

© 2008 The Washington Post Company