Peg Seminario, director AFL-CIO Department of Occupational Safety and Health, testified last week before the House Committee on Employment and Education, Subcommittee on Workforce Protection on OSHA''s standard setting process.
Based on her experience, Seminario offered her observations and views on OSHA standards and made recommendations for how the process can be improved.
Seminario pointed out that OSHA safety and health standards have been very effective at reducing hazardous exposures and work-related injuries, illnesses and fatalities.
"While during its 30-year history OSHA has issued only a relatively small number of standards, those that have been promulgated have been effective," said Seminario. "For example, in 1978 when OSHA''s cotton dust standard was adopted, 12 percent of textile workers suffered byssinosis. A 2000 evaluation of the standard conducted by OSHA found that the prevalence rate for byssinosis has been reduced to less than one percent."
Seminario noted that compliance with OSHA standards has proven to be feasible and in many cases at costs much lower than estimated by the agency. She said that employer claims of infeasibility of standards and astronomical costs have proved to be false.
"An in-depth retrospective on the cost and feasibility of OSHA standards conducted by the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment in 1995 found that OSHA correctly judged the technological feasibility for seven of eight of the standards evaluated and correctly judged the economic feasibility for six of the eight," Seminario said. "Unfortunately, industry practice of manufacturing wildly inflated cost estimates of rules continues as we saw more recently in the case of OSHA''s ergonomics rule, where exaggerated cost estimates were generated as part of employers'' propaganda campaign against the rule."
In addition, Seminario testified that most OSHA standards have been upheld in court; that the standards process is open and accessible to many parties; that the process has become more cumbersome, complex and lengthy; increased political and industry opposition to standards has greatly impeded and delayed worker protections; the standard setting process has nearly ground to a halt; and the process is failing to protect workers from serious recognized hazards.
"The standard setting process has so many problems, deficiencies and complexities that making it efficient, effective and timely, particularly in the current political climate, is as a formidable task," said Seminario. "However, several things could be done to improve the process so that workers are better protected. Some of these are a prerequisite for the process to work at all."
Seminario went on to make several recommendations for improving the standard setting process, including:
- The Bush administration and secretary of labor must demonstrate a clear commitment to setting worker safety and health standards, identify specific priorities and an agenda for action.
- The Department of Labor (DOL) must have the clear authority to develop proposed and final standards, without undue interference from the Office of Management and Budget.
- DOL and OSHA should develop better systems for managing the standard setting process including setting clear priorities and meaningful deadlines for action, and keep to those deadlines.
- Congress should consider legislation to make it possible to update permissible exposure limits on a regular basis.
"These modest recommendations will not fix all of the problems with the OSHA standard setting process, but would if adopted and implemented improve protections for American workers," Seminario concluded.
by Virginia Sutcliffe