Monday, December 29, 2008

Bush OSHA "Mired In Inaction"

Osha Color me unsurprised:  the Washington Post has a story out today on OSHA's lack of enforcement during the Bush Administration.  A major problem appears to be the influence of political appointees at the agency interfering with career scientists' findings.  According to the Post:

Current and former career officials at OSHA say that . . . a recurrent feature during the Bush administration [was the fact that] . . . 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. . . .

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. . . .

The agency's first director under Bush, John L. Henshaw, startled career officials by telling them in an early meeting that employers were OSHA's real customers, not the nation's workers. "Everybody was pretty amazed," one of those present recalled. "Our purpose is to ensure employee safety and health. . . . He just looked at things differently." . . .

In 2006, Henshaw was replaced by Edwin G. Foulke Jr., a South Carolina lawyer and former Bush fundraiser who spent years defending companies cited by OSHA for safety and health violations. Foulke quickly acquired a reputation inside the Labor Department as a man who literally fell asleep on the job: Eyewitnesses said they saw him suddenly doze off at staff meetings, during teleconferences, in one-on-one briefings, at retreats involving senior deputies, on the dais at a conference in Europe, at an award ceremony for a corporation and during an interview with a candidate for deputy regional administrator.

His top aides said they rustled papers, wore attention-getting garb, pounded the table for emphasis or gently kicked his leg, all to keep him awake. But, if these tactics failed, sometimes they just continued talking as if he were awake. "We'll be sitting there and things will fall out of his hands; people will go on talking like nothing ever happened," said a career official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to a reporter. . . .

The full article includes numerous examples of health and safety rules being spiked by political appointees--many of whom were in a revolving door of fighting OSHA as corporate representatives, working at OSHA, and then back to the corporate world.  A further theme is an increased push to "compliance assistance" and away from enforcement.  One thing that has heartened me about Obama's nominations thus far, especially on the energy/environmental side, is that he seems to be placing a renewed emphasis on science.  Political decisions must still be made at the end of the day, but those decisions should be made with the benefit of scientific findings--even those that counter the ultimate decision--not by pretending that such findings don't exist.  We'll see if the actual administration lives up to this initial optimism.


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