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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Republican Administration’s Midnight Raid on Worker Safety

In its continuing war against middle class working people, commitment to aiding the corporate sector, and generally attempting to gut any confidence that ordinary people might have in our capitalist system, the Bush administration is trying to push through secret midnight rules at the Department of Labor, which would sharply compromise worker safety.

It’s a shame too. That’s because capitalism done right actually works. You never want to over regulate an industry and stifle productivity unnecessarily. But the anarchy that passes for free market ideology is akin to mistaking anarchy for freedom. Just as you want as much legitimate freedom and civil liberties as possible in a society, you never want high crime rates, chaos, and a total break down of law and order, or legal protections for the majority of citizens. Well the same principle applies to the economic system, where sensible regulations, formulated to protect employees, but with an eye toward helping businesses, should be the norm. That is the role of good government.

But the Bush administration – and here I think a McCain administration would be a continuation of a bad policy – is determined to bring in just the type of economic lawless anarchy that provides short term benefit to big business and long time health dangers for their workers. As this article from today’s Washington Post shows:
Political appointees at the Department of Labor are moving with unusual speed to push through in the final months of the Bush administration a rule making it tougher to regulate workers' on-the-job exposure to chemicals and toxins.

The agency did not disclose the proposal, as required, in public notices of regulatory plans that it filed in December and May. Instead, Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao's intention to push for the rule first surfaced on July 7, when the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) posted on its Web site that it was reviewing the proposal, identified only by its nine-word title.

The text of the proposed rule has not been made public, but according to sources briefed on the change and to an early draft obtained by The Washington Post, it would call for reexamining the methods used to measure risks posed by workplace exposure to toxins. The change would address long-standing complaints from businesses that the government overestimates the risk posed by job exposure to chemicals.

The rule would also require the agency to take an extra step before setting new limits on chemicals in the workplace by allowing an additional round of challenges to agency risk assessments.

The department's speed in trying to make the regulatory change contrasts with its reluctance to alter workplace safety rules over the past 7 1/2 years. In that time, the department adopted only one major health rule for a chemical in the workplace, and it did so under a court order.
Of course, this fast track approach to changing the rules has brought the usual criticism from the AFL-CIO and Democrats in Congress, including the following:
Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said: "The fact that the Department of Labor seems to be engaged in secret rulemaking makes me highly suspicious that some high-level political appointees are up to no good. This Congress will not stand for the gutting of health and safety protections as the Bush administration heads out the door."
"This is flat-out secrecy," said Peg Seminario, director of health and safety policy at the AFL-CIO. "They are trying to essentially change the job safety and health laws and reduce required workplace protections through a midnight regulation."

Seminario said she was stunned that the administration would consider the rule its top priority, when for years it has "slow-walked and stalled" safety rules that would reduce worker deaths and injuries from diacetyl and beryllium.
But some of the criticism comes from less likely sources within the academic, scientific and health communities.
"It's an insult to America's workers for the Department of Labor to be spending its time in the last year of this administration allegedly fine-tuning the details of how to do these regulations when, other than the one ordered by a court, they have issued no major worker-health regulations," said Adam Finkel, a professor at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey who is a former health standards director at Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration. "The reality is there's a great need to light a fire under this moribund agency to do something -- anything -- to protect workers."
David Michaels, an epidemiologist and workplace safety professor at George Washington University's School of Public Health, said the rule would add another barrier to creating safety standards, in the name of improving them.

"This is a guarantee to keep any more worker safety regulation from ever coming out of OSHA," Michaels said. "This is being done in secrecy, to be sprung before President Bush leaves office, to cripple the next administration."
None of this is the first time this administration has interfered with federal agencies to promulgate rules it thinks are more favorable to industry. Indeed, the Bush administration has a long history of its political appointees tampering with scientific reports at the EPA and the FDA, as well as political interference at the Department of Justice. The administration cherry picked and made up evidence in the intelligence community to justify invading Iraq. These are not people who respect science, professional intelligence, or facts. And they are trying to leave a legacy of misplaced ideological governance that will tie the hands of the next administration. And, of course, if it’s a McCain administration, it will be more of the same.

John McCain has admitted that he doesn’t know much about the economy. I’m willing to bet he isn’t the most knowledgeable member of the Senate on issues of worker safety and health either. And you can tell by whom he has surrounded himself where he stands on the ideological spectrum. After all, Phil Gramm was not fired from the campaign because of a disagreement on fundamental economic policy. Rather he stepped down from the campaign because he got caught making impolitic statements that were embarrassing for the candidate. That doesn’t mean, though, that they were not an accurate reflection of what these people really think. And what they think is that big business should have everything it wants including total anarchy when it comes to rules that protect ordinary Americans’ health and safety.

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