During 2007, Congress introduced legislation to compel OSHA to take immediate action on safety and health issues that were previously relegated to the back burner. For example, Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., chairwoman of the House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections, introduced a measure to require OSHA to issue a rule protecting food processing workers from the chemical flavoring agent diacetyl, which has been linked to bronchiolitis obliterans, or “popcorn lung.”
And on March 6, U.S. Reps. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif., a member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education, and George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, introduced H.R. 1327 – the “Protective Equipment for America's Workers Act” – in an effort to require OSHA to release a direct final rule on personal protective equipment (PPE).
In addition, an omnibus appropriations bill issued by the Senate in December included a section requiring the agency to report to Congress with timetables for standards development on beryllium, silica, cranes and derricks, confined space in construction and the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling for Chemicals (GHS) for the hazard communication standard.
Congress also convened a series of hearings analyzing why, for instance, OSHA failed to investigate the nation’s refineries, or why didn’t it play more of a leading role in the 9/11 aftermath.
Legislative Activity Spurred Regulatory Action
Dr. David Michaels, an occupational health expert at George Washington University who has written extensively about OSHA as well as workplace safety and health issues, affirmed that without Congressional oversight or legislative activity, the safety community would still be waiting on agency action on diacetyl and the PPE ruling.
“The threat of congressional action on diacetyl is, I believe, the only reason OSHA began the standard setting process,” he remarked. “I think the Congressional oversight has probably played a role pushing OSHA to issue the long-delayed PPE standards.”
After Woolsey introduced Popcorn Workers Lung Disease Prevention Act (H.R. 2693), OSHA announced Sept. 25 it would start the process to regulate the flavoring agent as well as provide workers with material addressing concerns regarding workplace exposure. And after nine years of anticipation and union lawsuits aimed to spur action, OSHA finally issued the PPE rule on Nov. 15.
According to Frank White, senior vice president of ORC Worldwide, having Congressional oversight was a new experience for the agency, but it also was the best thing that could have happened as it “has helped OSHA to get focused on the critical issues.”
“They have accelerated OSHA’s action on diacetyl, and although Congress may not have exactly liked what OSHA has done, they have done something partially in response,” White affirmed. “In the end, though, it worked out for the best, in that it [Congressional oversight] spurs action that Foulke, Congress and the rest of the agency agree that needs to get done.”
Congressional Oversight Wasn’t “Fantastic”
Not every stakeholder, however, thought Congress was particularly demanding or aggressive with OSHA. Aaron Trippler, director of government affairs for the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA), claimed that Congressional oversight from OSHA hasn’t been exactly “fantastic.”
“I don’t think they took on the agency as much as I expected them to,” he said. “I’m kind of surprised there wasn’t much more oversight on OSHA ... I don’t think they got called on the carpet that much.”
He added: “I really thought with the Democrats taking over that they were going to have OSHA up there trying to justify everything they were doing with compliance assistance and alliance programs and the partnerships. I was surprised that not more of that was held.”
AIHA President Don Hart agreed. “They essentially forced OSHA to do something that was basically mandated by Congress,” he said.
However, Hart noted that the problem lies not only within OSHA, but also within Congress itself. He added it doesn’t help that the subcommittee overseeing OSHA only has eight committee members.
Trippler pointed out that with the political divide between party lines, it’s almost impossible for everyone to agree on an issue. He also reluctantly admitted that with other weighty issues on the table, occupational safety and health isn’t high on Congress’s agenda.
“I think Congress is not looking at occupational health and safety because not everyone knows what they want to address,” he said.
In the next installment of our Chronicling OSHA in 2007 series, stakeholders comment on what they wish the agency had accomplished in the past year and whether OSHA, in comparison to occupational safety and health organizations in other countries, is falling behind in taking new approaches to occupational health and safety.