White House Transparency Doesn't Apply to Industry Meetings on Worker Safety Rules

by Celeste Monforton

April 13, 2011

Cross-posted from The Pump Handle.

President Obama received an award last week for his efforts to improve openness in federal agencies. Jon Stewart poked fun at it (see clip) and I actually thought it might have been an April Fool's joke because of what I'd learned earlier in the week.

The President's own Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) has hosted two meetings with industry representatives who are opposed to an OSHA regulation on crystalline silica, but OIRA fails to disclose these meetings on its website (screenshot 4/11/11.) This is the second time in as many occasions that this OMB office has failed the transparency test when it comes to extra-curricular meetings on OSHA rules. OIRA did the same thing last summer on OSHA's proposed minor change to its injury recording log. Others have identified even more serious infractions by OIRA, but have yet to receive a response from the White House.

The practice of posting a notice about meetings between regulated parties and OMB staff began during the GW Bush Administration, not a group known for transparency. Even that very secretive Administration saw the value in informing the public promptly of such meetings. The Obama Administration's OIRA is now 0-2 when it comes to disclosure of meetings about OSHA rules. (Their performance may actually be even worse. For all I know they've had other meetings. We just don't know to look for them on OIRA's website.)

Serious health effects related to overexposure to respirable crystalline silica have plagued workers in certain industries for centuries. Individuals involved in mining, tunnelling, excavation and industrial processes that use silica sand or flour are potentially exposed and at risk of developing a host of diseases. Respirable crystalline silica is a known human carcinogen and exposure to it is also associated with a severe fibrotic respiratory disease, called silicosis, as well as kidney and autoimmune disorders. The current OSHA exposure limit is not protective of workers' health.

In 1974, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommended a much lower permissible exposure limit, but an outdated standard remains on the books at both OSHA and the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). But many industry trade associations convince their members its better to spend money fighting worker health and safety regulations than investing in worker protections. One of their tactics is meeting with the OIRA staff who are assigned to review draft proposed and final rules. The OSHA silica rule hasn't even been proposed yet, so the lobbyists are trying to influence its content (before it is shared publicly with the rest of us) or stop the proposal altogether.

These private meetings between OIRA and interested parties on draft or pending rules really bug me. They bothered me when I was a career employee at OSHA and MSHA, and they bother me now as an observer of the regulatory process. I call them extra-curricular meetings [not the best term and I'll take suggestions] because they circumvent the regular notice and comment rulemaking process. The Administrative Procedure Act guides the process that many federal agencies use to develop proposed and final rules. It is meant to be a process that applies to everyone equally; not one that gives special access to the politically-connected, economically privileged, or favored groups. Agencies like OSHA, develops a proposed rule and the public is given an opportunity--an equal opporunity---to provide comments. The comment period is open to everyone. This should be the one and only avenue for those who endorse or oppose a proposed rule to provide their perspective, expertise, or opinion to an Administration.

At OSHA, not only do they offer a lengthy comment period, but after a rule is proposed, OSHA holds many days---often weeks or months----of public hearings at which individuals can testify about the proposal and even cross-examine other witnesses. With a process that is already robust and full of opportunity for public participation, why does the White House allow for these extra-curricular meetings??

There's no reason for them, and there should be no place for them in a process that already provides ample time and methods for any interest group to participate.

As for the two extra-curricular meetings that Obama's OIRA has already allowed, here's what I've been able to find out:

*During the week of March 28, OIRA staff hosted representatives of the American Chemistry Council's Crystalline Silica Panel.
*During the week of April 4, the guests of OIRA were brick industry officials.

I'll be contacting OIRA today to ask if they plan to disclose information about these meetings on their website. I'll also be asking for a copy of their written policy for posting information about these meetings. OIRA is fond of giving new mandates to federal agencies for written policies. It will be interesting to see if they have any of their own, and if so, will they disclose them.

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Also from Celeste Monforton

Celeste Monforton joined the Milken Institute School of Public Health in 2006. She is a regular contributor to the "Pump Handle," a blog known as "a water cooler for the public health crowd." She continues her work in occupational health and maintains her ties to The George Washington University by serving as a professorial lecturer.

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