Industries, Congress and Federal Agencies Work Hard to Delay Worker Safety Regulations

Tuesday, June 30, 2015
(graphic: OSHA)

Efforts to improve workplace safety during the past two decades have been stymied as a result of intense lobbying by industries, as well as by decisions or inactions by Congress and federal agencies, according to the Center for Public Integrity (CPI).


The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was once a productive arm of the U.S. government, issuing as many as six new health standards a year. But that was in 1978, and businesses have worked hard to challenge OSHA’s mission ever since. Consequently, there have been only seven chemical exposure-limit regulations issued in the past 20 years. And one of those was rescinded by the U.S. Congress.


“As a result, most of the agency’s exposure limits are more than 40 years old,” CPI’s Jamie Smith Hopkins wrote. “And tens of thousands of chemicals, including some that the federal government has known for years are hazards, have no limits at all.”


CPI found that “most of OSHA’s 470 chemical exposure limits are, by the agency’s own admission, grossly outdated and don’t protect workers from a variety of ailments.”


The toll on Americans from on-the-job chemical exposures is staggering. One study conducted by the University of California, Davis, reported that “an estimated 53,000 people died in 2007 from on-the-job exposures — outnumbering those killed in suicides, motor vehicle accidents, falls or homicides,” according to CPI. “More than 400,000 others got sick. The price tag: an estimated $58 billion.”


It’s been difficult for new worker safety rules to get established when companies launch opposition campaigns to undermine OSHA’s efforts and those of labor unions and other advocates.


One example of industry’s successful efforts in this regard, said Hopkins, is the case of hexavalent chromium, a metal that is used in such products as specialty paints. Certain welding and chrome plating procedures cause it to be released into the air as a carcinogenic fume. To keep OSHA from developing new limits on the metal, a business coalition spent half a million dollars on a lung-cancer study of chrome workers to cast doubt on earlier research. The effort backfired, however, when results of the pro-business study, far from showing the current exposure limit for the metal to be unnecessary, instead revealed it to be inadequate. The damning facts were that, between 1971 and 2006, one in three workers were found likely to get cancer under that standard.


So instead of releasing the study, the companies “massaged the data and released certain parts that seemed to support its position,” said Hopkins. In the end, industry’s efforts paid off handsomely—OSHA decided to water down its regulations on the metal and adopted a standard that businesses had been fighting for.


In support of manufacturers, trade organizations, such as the Society of the Plastics Industry and the American Iron and Steel Institute, have filed lawsuits over the years to overturn new OSHA regulations.


Congress has also contributed to curtailing the work of OSHA, which was dubbed the “Gestapo” of the government by Representative John Boehner (R-Ohio) before he became House speaker. When OSHA adopted rules to reduce injuries caused by repetitive motion in certain jobs, Congress in 2001 revoked the rules — “the first (and so far only) regulation undone by the Congressional Review Act,” Hopkins noted.


Other federal agencies also have failed to do their part to improve working conditions for workers.


“Workplace-hazard research is the purview of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health,” Hopkins wrote. “The problem isn’t that NIOSH hasn’t conducted a national survey of workplace exposure across industries — it’s that the agency hasn’t done it for more than 30 years.”


Two former OSHA executives told CPI they believe that OSHA, itself, has contributed to its problems by not fighting hard enough for its own cause. “Through all its history, it’s been too deferential,” said Adam Finkel, who directed OSHA’s health standards program from 1995 to 2000. Added Celeste Monforton, who worked at the agency in the 1990s: “There are obstacles for OSHA, but in some ways, they’re their own worst enemy.”

-Noel Brinkerhoff, Danny Biederman


To Learn More:

The Campaign to Weaken Worker Protections (by Jamie Smith Hopkins, Center for Public Integrity)

Slow-Motion Tragedy for American Workers (by Jim Morris, Jamie Smith Hopkins, and Maryam Jameel, Center for Public Integrity)

Chemical Industry and Republican Lawmakers Succeed in Stalling EPA Chemical Regulation Process (by Steve Straehley, AllGov)

EPA Toxic Substance Database is 55 Years Behind Schedule (by Noel Brinkerhoff and David Wallechinsky, AllGov)


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