Under Bush, OSHA Mired in Inaction
Monday, December 29, 2008
In early 2001, an epidemiologist at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration sought to publish a special bulletin warning dental technicians that they could be exposed to dangerous beryllium alloys while grinding fillings. Health studies showed that even a single day's exposure at the agency's permitted level could lead to incurable lung disease.
After the bulletin was drafted, political appointees at the agency gave a copy to a lobbying firm hired by the country's principal beryllium manufacturer, according to internal OSHA documents. The epidemiologist, Peter Infante, incorporated what he considered reasonable changes requested by the company and won approval from key directorates, but he bristled when the private firm complained again.
"In my 24 years at the Agency, I have never experienced such indecision and delay," Infante wrote in an e-mail to the agency's director of standards in March 2002. Eventually, top OSHA officials decided, over what Infante described in an e-mail to his boss as opposition from "the entire OSHA staff working on beryllium issues," to publish the bulletin with a footnote challenging a key recommendation the firm opposed.
Current and former career officials at OSHA say that such sagas were a recurrent feature during the Bush administration, as political appointees ordered the withdrawal of dozens of workplace health regulations, slow-rolled others, and altered the reach of its warnings and rules in response to industry pressure.
The result is a legacy of unregulation common to several health-protection agencies under Bush: From 2001 to the end of 2007, OSHA officials issued 86 percent fewer rules or regulations termed economically significant by the Office of Management and Budget than their counterparts did during a similar period in President Bill Clinton's tenure, according to White House lists.
White House officials have dismissed such tallies, emphasizing in recent regulatory overviews that their "objective is quality, not quantity," and that heavy restrictions on corporations harm economic performance. During Bush's presidency, they said in a September report, average annual regulatory costs were kept 24 percent lower than during the previous two decades. OSHA says it has issued many rules of lesser consequence that nonetheless clarified industry responsibilities.
But this record has been controversial among occupational health experts and career OSHA staff.
"The legacy of the Bush administration has been one of dismal inaction," said Robert Harrison, a professor at the University of California at San Francisco and chairman of the occupational health section of the American Public Health Association. It has been "like turning a ketchup bottle upside down, banging the bottom of the container, and nothing comes out. You shake and shake and nothing comes out," Harrison said.
More than two dozen current and former senior career officials further said in interviews that the agency's strategic choices were frequently made without input from its experienced hands. Political appointees "shut us out," a longtime senior career official said.
Among the regulations proposed by OSHA's staff but scuttled by political appointees was one meant to protect health workers from tuberculosis. Although OSHA concluded in 1997 that the regulation could avert as many as 32,700 infections and 190 deaths annually and save $115 million, it was blocked by opposition from large hospitals.
In the summer, the agency decided against moving further toward the regulation of crystalline silica, the tiny fibrous material in cement and stone dust that causes lung disease or cancer. OSHA promised a scientific peer review of the health risks by early 2005 and then by early 2007, but it never acted. Regulating silica exposures would have prevented an estimated 41 silicosis deaths and 20 to 40 lung cancers annually, according to OSHA.
In the spring, political appointees quietly scrapped work on another long-pending regulation of hazardous exposure to ionizing radiation in mailrooms, food warehouses, and hospitals and airports. It cited "resource constraints and other priorities" -- the same reason officials gave for withdrawing more than a dozen regulatory proposals in 2001.