As the United States returns to “divided government” after six years of one-party control of the House, the Senate and the Presidency, the LHSFNA joins other interested observers awaiting the impact on a variety of health and safety issues and concerns.
Among these are asbestos legislation, regulatory decision-making at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), OSHA rule-making, strategic direction at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and leadership at the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA).
After a robust debate in 2005, Congress made no progress in delineating a way to resolve the nation’s mushrooming asbestos compensation crisis in 2006. Now, the powerful contenders in this national debate are reconsidering their options and their approach to the new Congress.
The bottom line is that no one is satisfied with the present impasse. The court system is clogged with hundreds of thousands of asbestos litigation claims – far more than it can handle – and state and federal courts have put a hold on these cases. As a result, victims’ claims are not being adjudicated and many are enduring immense suffering and eventual death without adequate compensation. At the same time, under the pressure of the claims, many companies have been forced into bankruptcy proceedings while awaiting the opportunity to defend themselves against claims they say are unjustified. Their insurers are in limbo, too, not knowing whether, how much or when they may have to pay out billions of dollars in indemnities.
All these forces are represented by powerful organizations that lobby members of Congress. In 2005, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), the American Insurance Association (AIA) and the AFL-CIO “squared off” in a three-sided debate before the Senate Judiciary Committee, but the hearing only polarized the committee and no compromise could be reached. In 2006, despite the lack of a Republican consensus on a solution, former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R – TN) brought a “compromise” bill to the Senate floor where it failed.
The Democrats will now have the opportunity to reach their own consensus, starting on the Judiciary Committee and extending through the full Senate and the House. Even if they do, however, their bill could face a Presidential veto. That threat leaves a fairly narrow terrain, so the present political logjam may continue.
In regard to three kinds of toxic exposures of concern to Laborers, the EPA – under the Bush Administration – has adopted, encouraged or finagled policy to allow commercially expedient projects that threaten the health of workers and others.
In one proposal, the EPA would allow the use of toxic chat in road construction despite the fact that road maintenance workers would later be at risk when their repair work breaks or saws road surfaces and unleashes the dangerous chat into the air. In another proposal, the EPA would exclude lead removal in renovation and remodeling projects from regulations that govern lead abatement (permanent removal), this despite the fact that the dangers to remediation workers in both situations are essentially the same. Similarly, in asbestos removal, the EPA has authorized “experimental” demolition programs that violate the agency’s own regulations, endangering demolition workers and the community residents in the affected areas. In each case, the EPA chose to ignore scientific evidence of danger and, instead, to foster commerce despite the risks. In all three cases, LIUNA or the LHSFNA opposed the EPA initiatives.
While the EPA is part of the executive branch, the election of a Democratic majority in the Congress could lead to more Congressional oversight and criticism of evolving EPA policy with regard to science, commerce and impacts on occupational and public health.
Under the Bush Administration, rule-making at OSHA has nearly ground to a halt. It now takes more than seven years on, average, to develop and adopt an OSHA standard.
Moreover, in the one standard that was adopted this year – the hexavalent chromium standard – the agency chose to ignore the danger of concrete dermatitis caused by Portland cement that the LHSFNA had stressed in its testimony.
Because recent standards are so few in number and so slow in development, they tend to lag in addressing key issues in occupational safety and health. In effect, American workplaces have operated in an increasingly unregulated environment.
Currently, OSHA devotes only three percent of its budget to standards development. Enforcement activity has also declined. In their place, the Bush Administration and the Republican Congress have promoted a variety of collaborative private sector partnerships in an effort to establish a less restrictive and less adversarial climate in occupational safety and health. While many of these initiatives are promising, the failure to maintain efforts to define and enforce minimal standards has been troubling to LIUNA and the LHSFNA. The Democratic Congress could decide to boost funding for standards and enforcement or review the OSHA partnership programs to see if they are effective.
The main concern of the LHSFNA with regard to the CDC has been the agency’s budget and reorganization, both managed by Director Julie L. Gerberding, a Bush appointee.
Gerberling’s original effort to reorganize the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) into one of four “coordinating centers” and strip it of its direct link to the Director was blocked by the current Congress, but NIOSH’s role has been undermined in other ways. A greater share of the NIOSH budget now goes to support general CDC management, thus reducing funds available for field work and research, and NIOSH Director John Howard has had to split time between the agency and his assignment to manage health evaluations and compensation for workers who became impaired after performing recovery work at ground zero following the 9/11 attack.
The Fund also notes the growing morale problems at the CDC, which is responsible for the nation’s entire public health agenda. A number of prominent leaders and scientists have left the agency since 2004. In September, five of the six former directors of the agency sent a joint letter to Gerberding, suggesting that her top-down management style stifles science, creates bureaucracy and makes CDC operations more cumbersome.
Despite broad opposition and two rejections by the Senate, President Bush used a constitutional maneuver in October to appoint Richard Stickler to the head of the MHSA. The agency is responsible for overseeing safety in the nation’s coal mines where 43 miners have been killed this year. Stickler has a long history of employment by the mining industry.
Because of the “recess appointment,” Stickler can serve only until the end of the next Senate session, sometime next year. Then, the debate over how to lead safety improvements in the nation’s mines will resume in a Senate committee controlled by Democrats.
Politics, Safety and Health
As a joint labor-management fund chartered under the federal government’s Taft-Hartley Act, the LHSFNA does not participate in lobbying activity. Yet, the Fund understands that political decisions affect our work, both in occupational safety and health and in our support of LIUNA health and welfare funds and the general promotion of wellness. Each party represents a different balance of public and private interests. After 12 years of Republican control in the Congress, the new Democrat majority in the Congress is bound to assert itself in new ways. The Fund will monitor and report on decisions that affect the lives and work of Laborers, their families and LIUNA’s signatory employers.