Back in 2011, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration proposed an update to a 40-year-old standard regulating exposure to silica dust, which can damage the lungs of miners and construction workers who cut into brick or stone. Despite industry efforts to mitigate the problem, the Centers for Disease Control found this month that silicosis still causes 100 deaths a year, and the new rule would roughly cut in half the amount of dust a worker can be allowed to encounter.
Industry groups, naturally, have fought the new rule tooth and nail. Even by the standard of OSHA's long timeframe for finalizing rules, this one has taken a while: The Office of Management and Budget was supposed to review OSHA's proposal in 90 days, and instead took two and a half years, after nine meetings with industry lobbyists who say that the cost of compliance outweighs the safety benefits. Now, OSHA director David Michaels has been saying that the agency expects to finish the rule next year.
But industry has a final card to play: The budget. This week, Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) attached a rider to the appropriations bill for the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education prohibiting any money from being used to enforce a new silica rule until OSHA can evaluate the effect of new protective technologies, and re-do a small business impact analysis that was last done in 2003. Since the rule has taken more than a decade to develop, Hoeven says, the initial research is out of date.
"With a new review and study, we can ensure that the most modern and efficient approach is implemented to protect employees," says Don Canton, spokesman for Hoeven.
Hoeven's amendment closely parallels recommendations from a collection of mining and construction interests, and would almost certainly delay implementation until the next administration takes over -- which, depending on who wins the White House, could mean never.
Legislation-by-appropriation is hardly uncommon when the legislative and executive branches are held by opposing parties. But it's especially rampant in this year's budget. The GOP-controlled House and Senate have included provisions blocking new environmental regulations, family planning services, and a rule obligating financial advisors to put retirees' interests first.
The House's bill is particularly hard on the National Labor Relations Board, cutting its funding by 27 percent. Further, the House budget would prevent any money from being used to implement a new standard that would make franchisors liable for their franchisees, and recently expedited procedures for union elections, which Republicans already tried to overturn by using the Congressional Review Act.
Even where the House hasn't completely defunded new regulations, it has proposed deep cuts to a workforce development law that passed last year with overwhelming bipartisan support, and gutted the little agency that monitors enforcement of labor provisions in trade agreements.
Of course, all of this could change again; the House and Senate bills will likely be incorporated into an omnibus appropriations measure, which President Obama could veto. If the budget improves to a point where he can accept most of what's in it, things like a delay to a workplace safety rule could end up slipping through.
The AFL-CIO's Peg Seminario says the budget process hasn't been used to block a new safety rule since 1995, when Republicans required additional studies to be conducted on a new ergonomics standard. It didn't end up being finalized until 2001.
"Bottom line is that this rider to block the silica standard will cost workers’ lives," Seminario said. "It is a demonstration that the Chamber of Commerce and Republicans in Congress are opposed to any kind of regulation to protect workers and have no regard for workers’ lives."