January 25, 2012 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 3Comment

A group of 300 scientists, physicians and public health experts are urging President Obama to direct his Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to complete its review of a proposed Labor Department health standard on the carcinogen crystallline silica. OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) has been reviewing the proposed rule for nearly a year, although the Executive Order (EO) giving OIRA authority for such review sets a four-month maximum time limit.

The signatories on the letter to President Obama, many of whom are members of the Union of Concerned Scientists or the American Public Health Association call the delay extraordinary and “with no indication as to when the review will be concluded and the proposed rule issued.” I signed the letter, too. My records indicate that a year-long “review” by the White House of an OSHA proposed health standard is unprecedented since EO 12866 took affect in 1993. Not a distinction the Obama Administration should be proud of, given their predecessor’s pitiful record on new protective worker safety regulations.

The letter points to the contradiction between President Obama’s assertions about openness and public participation, and the closed door meetings OIRA has hosted with special interests about this draft proposed rule. “As you noted on your second day in office in your Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government,” the letter recounts,

‘Government should be participatory. Public engagement enhances the Government’s effectiveness and improves the quality of its decisions. Knowledge is widely dispersed in society, and public officials benefit from having access to that dispersed knowledge. Executive departments and agencies should offer Americans increased opportunities to participate in policymaking and to provide their Government with the benefits of their collective expertise and information.’ We could not agree more, the letter emphasized.

In a statement issued by the Union of Concerned Scientists, Francesca Grifo, director of the group’s Scientific Integrity Program, said:

“The White House’s job is to coordinate the development of rules that protect the public, not to stand in their way. The OMB is hundreds of days behind schedule, and every day these rules are delayed, more workers are at risk.”

So true. The delay has serious adverse consequences for public health.

Respirable crystalline silica is one of the oldest occupational hazards, in fact, the Greek physician Hippocrates (c.300 BC) wrote of its deadly health effects. CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) estimates that today 1.7 million U.S. workers are exposed to respirable crystalline silica, which can cause irreversible, progressive fibrotic lung disease, and is also associated with lung cancer, chronic renal disease, and autoimmune disorders. Mr. Leonard Serafin, who worked for 32 years constructing track for the railroad (unitl 2004) suffers miserably because of what silica dust did to his lungs.

“My ongoing health problems affect all aspects of my life. The list of problems associated with my damaged lungs is too extensive to mention. I never dreamed I would have to spend my retirement years in this debilitating manner.”

The letter signed by 300 comes six months after another letter was sent to the White House making the same request. In July, Senators Harkin (D-IA) and Murray (D-WA) and Representatives Miller (D-CA) and Woolsey (D-CA) sent a letter to then OMB director Jacob Lew (now Obama’s Chief of Staff) urging his office to complete its review of the proposed OSHA silica rule.

“The OSHA silica standard in place today is more than 40 years old and inadequate to properly safeguard workers. …It is time to allow the public to have an opportunity to comment and provide additional information,” they wrote.

In last night’s State of the Union Address, President Obama said

“I will not back down from protecting our kids from mercury poisoning, or making sure that our food is safe and our water is clean. I will not go back to the days when health insurance companies had unchecked power to cancel your policy, deny your coverage, or charge women differently than men.”

But will the Obama Administration back down on this proposed rule to protect workers from respirable crystalline silica? For some of us, a year-long “review” in his White House suggests that he already has.

3 thoughts on “Scientists urge White House to intervene in stalled worker safety rule

  1. Well done! We look up at you with great hope. Developing world (Govts)follows US (Govt.)(of course not always. We, people learn from initiatives taken by people and get inspired. While going through the content, I realized how bureaucracy and politicians are similar world over. It is the peoples power that make difference.

  2. Jadish,
    Great to hear from a world-leader on health protections for working people. You know first-hand the toll that silica dust takes on workers’ lives. Regrettably, the people in power sometimes forget who put them there. In solidarity, celeste

  3. Good article. Thank you.

    By this point, it should be pretty obvious that President Obama isn’t going to challenge Big Business in any meaningful way unless he’s under enormous pressure to do so. That’s what stopped the Keystone pipeline.

    Grassroots activism, like the Occupy Wall Street movement, is what is needed.

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