Leaders: Defending OSHA Rulemaking

Sept. 9, 2004
Those who attack OSHA for gutting its regulatory agenda are being unfair, says the man in charge of the effort, veteran Department of Labor attorney Steven Witt.

When OSHA Administrator John Henshaw chose Steven Witt to head up the agency's Directorates of Health and Safety Standards Programs in 2001, he chose a longtime Department of Labor (DOL) hand. From 1972 until 1983, Witt worked as an attorney in DOL's Office of the Solicitor, the Occupational Safety and Health Division. In 1983, he moved to OSHA, where he held various positions in the Directorates of Health Standards, Safety Standards, and federal and state operations. Witt headed the Directorate of Technical Support from 1996 until 2001.

OH: What are your most important accomplishments as the leader of OSHA's directorate of Standards and Guidance?

Witt: We've met dates we've committed to on the regulatory agenda, or are only off by a month or two. We met our date on APFs [assigned protection factors for respiratory protection] when we held our hearing in January. We're on track to publish a [court-ordered] proposed rule on hexavalent chromium in October. We're moving forward on crystalline silica [according to the regulatory agenda, the Small Business Regulatory and Enforcement Fairness Act Process for silica is to be initiated in September, ed.].

OH: What is your biggest disappointment so far?

Witt: Knowing how hard the people at standards work and how committed they are to the process of putting out good standards, now that I've been here 3 years, the thing that has disappointed me is to read in the media and hear public criticisms that I know to be unfair.

It's discouraging to my people to hear: "It's not a real agenda; standards isn't doing anything; you only have 22 items and you used to have 48."

Previously, the regulatory agenda had 48 items, but on half of them there was no likelihood of anything being done. Every 6 months when the agenda came out, the dates were just being changed with no real work. The decision was made before I got this job by Elaine Chao and John Henshaw to streamline the regulatory agenda so that all the items on it were active projects.

So the agenda came out and went from 48 items to 21 or 22, but the agency wasn't really working on 48 projects, I know that. And John Henshaw reminds me once a week that he expects those dates [on the agenda] to be met. I've committed to try my best to do that.

OH: What final rules will OSHA issue in the coming year?

Witt: According to the regulatory agenda, between now and the end of 2005, we'll finish: hexavalent chromium by the [court-ordered deadline of] January 2006; [long shoring and marine terminals] vertical tandem lifts; negative pressure fit testing; fire protection in shipyards; standards improvement project, hopefully by the end of this year; and employer payment for PPE.

For PPE, we're asking for information on "tools of the trade," such as helmets and steel-mesh gloves. The term's meaning varies in different industries and areas of the country. We're trying to understand what practices are related to this, then we'll review those comments and move toward a final rule.

OH: Is this the only remaining issue on the PPE rule?

Witt: It's the only remaining public issue.

OH: In 2002, your directorate gained the additional responsibility of issuing guidance. What do you say to critics who charge you are doing fewer major rules because of your guidance responsibilities?

Witt: It seems to me that's a simplification of how work gets done. I don't have anybody who's working just on guidance or just on standards. People have responsibility for both. In working on standards, there are times when you're waiting for comments to be submitted, waiting for the solicitor's office to review parts of standards. I honestly don't believe the work we've done on guidance has detracted in any way from our ability to produce standards.

OH: What are you doing in the guidance area?

Witt: We're working on a variety of different guidance products [As of June 22, OSHA was developing 30 different guidance projects, ed.]

I believe there was a need for guidance: standards sometimes take a long time to do. There are emerging issues and here it is very important to get information out quickly.

For instance, we had 110,000 comments on indoor air quality, though it was withdrawn as a standard. We were able to take that information and we're working on several guidance products on mold and some other issues related to that. We're also doing guidance in the areas of silica, chromium, metal recycling, PPE some really significant work.

On ergonomics, we just finished our second set guidelines for retail grocers. We're working on shipyard and poultry processing now and John Henshaw has said he intends to assign two more to us, though he hasn't decided which ones.

OH: You have a legal background that prepared you for this job. Does that overlap with traditional safety and health?

Witt: I've been in OSHA for 21 years, longer than 90 percent of the people here. During that time, I've been involved in all aspects of the agency, including rulemaking. And I have a science background: I was a chemistry major in college.

While I was in the solicitor's office for 10 years, I was a standards attorney, and project attorney on the 14 carcinogens, OSHA' first substantial health standards. This helps in two ways. I understand the statutory requirements of rulemaking, executive orders, relationships with other federal agencies and court precedents.

Perhaps more importantly, I understand the relationship with the solicitor's office, which I think helps my people in dealing with [DOL] attorneys and moving projects along.

Finally, I strongly believe this is not just a technical job, but a managerial position and I take those responsibilities very seriously. I have 65 people who work for me.

OH: What attracted you to the rulemaking directorate?

Witt: The directorate of standards is a challenge and people at my level always look for new challenges. It was an opportunity to get involved in one of the areas important to the new assistant secretary that I knew would be scrutinized carefully. I was attracted by the interaction that we have with other federal agencies, such as NIOSH and EPA, to work more closely with the solicitor's office than I could at technical support.

When John [Henshaw] asked me, I didn't hesitate. I felt it was a reward for 5 years of hard work in technical support.

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