In a sign of renewed energy and focus at the Department of Labor (DOL), Secretary Hilda Solis rolled out the agency’s Semi-Annual Regulatory Agenda last month with a series of webchats and a new online resource tool.
“The openness and outreach is refreshing,” says LIUNA General Secretary Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni. “More significantly, the agency’s decision to set next-step guideposts for early this year is strong evidence that it is returning attention to the development and issue of appropriate workplace safety standards.”
While many of the regulatory proposals in the Semi-Annual Regulatory Agenda surfaced during or even before the last Administration, rulemaking ground to a near halt during the Bush years as OSHA shifted resources from standards development and enforcement to voluntary programs with industry partners. Now, with the agency reassessing the Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) and the BLS injury and illness data collection system and reinvigorating its standards development calendar, OSHA seems to be reversing the Bush-era trend.
Several construction standards are among the many listed in the agenda. Perhaps the most prominent is the Occupational Exposure to Crystalline Silica standard. Silica – a component of concrete that becomes airborne and breathable during many construction operations – remains one of the most common and potentially lethal hazards faced by Laborers. Once inhaled, it lodges in the lungs and can produce, many years later, debilitating respiratory illness and more than 300 annual deaths. OSHA writes that, by next July, it will issue a Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM), the first big, official step toward setting a standard.
The agenda indicates that the Cranes and Derricks standard will be finalized by July. By March, comments solicited last year on the Confined Spaces in Construction standard – which, despite its overall soundness, drew criticism on a variety of specific points – will be analyzed, setting the stage for renewed focus on this long-delayed standard. Also by March, the agency will retract its Walking Working Surfaces and Personal Fall Protection Systems standard, which was first proposed in 1990 but never adopted, and issue a new slips, trips and falls prevention NPRM that reflects current industry practice and technology. In addition, the agency is announcing a NPRM to add a column on the 300 Log to track work-related musculoskeletal disorders, a reporting requirement that was part of a final rule adopted during the Clinton Administration and subsequently removed by the Bush Administration’s DOL. Action on several other construction-related regulations is also listed in the agenda though the lack of any specific guideline on the Hearing Conservation Program for Construction Workers standard is discouraging.
In addition to construction, DOL proposed changes in regulations governing Employment and Training, Employee Benefits Security, Employment Standards, Occupational Safety and Health (in addition to construction), Mine Safety and Health and Office Administration. In her online commentary on the new agenda, Secretary Solis refuted the anti-regulatory rhetoric of OSHA critics, saying that the proposals are designed to advance four goals for American workers:
- Fair wages
- A voice in the workplace
- Safe workplaces
- Security in retirement
“These regulations will level the playing field for businesses that play by the rules,” she sternly said, adding, “Get involved. This is your Labor Department.”