A Tale of Two Rules: Washington Bureaucracy and the Politics of Workplace Safety

Mike Elk

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Many laws are proposed in this town, but only some are passed. The same is true of regulations — except the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), rather than Congress, is in control of the process.

A look at the different fates of two different workplace safety rules reveals the Obama administration’s election year priorities, workplace safety advocates say. As I’ve reported, OMB has for more than 14 months delayed implementation of a proposed Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) rule that regulates workers’ exposure to cancer-causing silica dust. But it recently required less than one month to approve (and send out for public comment) a USDA rule that could harm the safety of poultry workers. It typically takes the OMB about 90 days to release a proposed regulation for public review.

OSHA’s efforts to control serious, unregulated workplace hazards — including silica, combustible dust and others — are far too slow,” says Change to Win Health and Safety Director Eric Frumin. When it is up to OSHA to fix these problems themselves, they have shown they can do that quickly. But for decades, OSHA has had to confront severe industry pressures via congressional opposition, White House interference and hysterical media accounts.” 

In a statement to In These Times explaining why the silica rule has been held up for 14 months, OMB spokeswoman Moira Mack said The administration works as expeditiously as possible on rules. When it comes to complex safety rules, it is critical that we get it right.” 

Critics of the rule, such as Public Citizen, dispute that the OMB to delay putting out for public comment, and into effect. 

They try to act like they are carefully considering the rule and getting input from stakeholders,” says Celeste Monforton, who lectures at George Washington University’s School of Public Health. The thing about the silica rule is that all that anyone is asking for is that it be published in the federal register so that public dialogue with stakeholders can begin. There hasn’t been a public proposal that we can focus on.” 

Workplace safety advocates say that OMB pulled out all the stops to get the USDA poultry inspection rule published quickly for public comment. The rule would increase the number of chickens moving down a slaughterhouse production line from approximately 75-91 birds a minute to 175 birds a minute, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), which represents workers in the poultry industry. OMB received the USDA poultry rule on December 7, 2011, concluded their review of the rule on January 20, 2012, and USDA published the rule in the Federal Register on January 27

Critics say OMB did not even consult with OSHA officials before approving the rule.

USDA did not contact OSHA, the agency responsible for protecting the health and safety of American workers, before publishing this proposed rule. This sets an alarming precedent for all agencies that may want to use administrative rulemaking to change policies that could weaken health and safety protections for workers,” the UFCW said in a recently online e-mail petition.

But Cass Sunstein, the head of OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), which Senator Tom Harkin criticized last week in an interview with In These Times for holding up key workplace safety rules, cited the USDA rule as an example of progress.

Writing in The Chicago Tribune, Sunstein said, The Department of Agriculture has proposed to streamline antiquated poultry inspection requirements, allowing companies to choose a more flexible approach with five-year savings in excess of $1 billion.”

Center for Progressive Reform President Rena Steinzor says there’s a double standard at work inside the OMB.

It would seem that OIRA’s enthusiasm for a deregulatory trophy to wave in the air prompted a short-circuiting of the vaunted interagency review’ it so strongly favors when a protective EPA rule is involved,” Steinzor says. Sunstein takes great umbrage at the notion that he and his staff are anything but neutral policy analysts who objectively assess regulatory matters, providing badly needed smart and penetrating review no matter which way the issues cut. Yet in this, as in so many other examples, OIRA greases the skids toward deregulation, while the skids that favor protection of public health, worker and consumer safety, and the environment are sticky indeed.”

An OMB spokesperson would not comment on why the agency approved the USDA poultry rule so quickly, in contrast to the silica dust rule. As a matter of a policy OMB does not comment on regulation that is currently under review,” Mack told In These Times.

Steinzor thinks politics is the motivating the factor. This is the great effort to prove to the Chamber of Commerce that President Obama is [a] friend,” says Steinzor. He gets his base upset in an effort to make himself look reasonable to independent voters, but what real-life independent voters even know about this rule?”

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.
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