Commentary | Regulation

Regulatory freeze legislation ignores deadly consequences of existing regulatory delays

Should unnecessary exposures to hazards that cause lung disease and cancer, leading to death, continue for at least five more years?

A new Hard Labor report by the Center for Public Integrity illustrates the danger of the one-dimensional anti-regulatory approach being pursued by many members of Congress. This report describes how Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations limiting workers’ exposure to beryllium and silica (both of which “are classified as ‘known human carcinogens’ by the International Agency for Research on Cancer”) are woefully weak and outdated. Both rules date back several decades, with the beryllium rule based “on an Atomic Energy Commission calculation crafted by an industry hygienist and a physician in the back of a taxi in 1949,” and the silica rule found to be too lenient as long ago as 1974 by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

The report describes how 134,000 workers a year are threatened by exposure to beryllium and approximately 2 million are exposed to silica dust. Between 3,600 and 7,300 sometimes disabling or even fatal silicosis cases occur each year. The story describes the painful and frequently debilitating results of these diseases and the toll they take on the victims’ families. For instance, “At 58, retired machinist Bruce Revers is tethered to his oxygen machines – a wall unit when he’s at home, a portable tank when he’s out. The simple act of walking to the curb to pick up his newspaper is a grind. … He will not recover.”

Efforts to update these two regulations were taken up too slowly by the government, but they did eventually begin. These efforts, however, have each been mired within the governmental bureaucracy for more than a decade. The Obama administration has also failed to act. OSHA has made some progress on a silica rule, but no rule has been formally proposed because the White House Office of Management and Budget has been reviewing it (some would say “bottling it up”) for 15 months and counting (instead of the 90 days required by executive order); OSHA has yet to send a beryllium rule to OMB for review. Objections by industry go a long way to explaining this lack of progress, though it bears noting that a stronger beryllium rule is supported by the only domestic producer of pure beryllium.

Congress should be pushing the administration to move these rules forward. But instead, House Republicans are advancing regulatory freeze legislation (with a vote expected this summer) that would prevent the establishment of virtually any new rules, or even the development of rules, for two years or until the unemployment rate falls below 6 percent. Such an unemployment rate is not expected to occur, according to the Congressional Budget Office, until early 2017. Meanwhile, each year, thousands of workers would needlessly contract berylliosis and silicosis because of the currently lax standards.

The beryllium and silica rules are thus glaring examples of why the simplistic and one-dimensional view of regulation that drives a regulatory freeze bill would prove damaging to the health and well-being of American workers.

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