Scientists respond to White House attack on worker protections and public health

Today, a scathing letter was sent to the Department of Labor (DOL) blasting them for their proposed risk assessment rule that would make it even more difficult for the already-slower-than-molasses department to issue workplace safety rules. In this time of global climate change it is safe to say that glaciers melt faster than the labor department issues rules to protect worker health. 

The letter was issued by myself and Dr. Celeste Monforton of George Washington University and the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP), and supported with signatures from prominent industrial hygienists, physicians, epidemiologists, toxicologists, and other practitioners involved in workers’ safety and health research and prevention programs. The letter asked that the DOL proposal be withdrawn. 

As detailed on the SKAPP website, the DOL proposed rule fails to provide any validated guidance that would improve the current risk assessment methods, and has numerous serious flaws that would weaken current approaches and undermine occupational health rules.  It would also add an additional step to the rulemaking process further delaying the development and issuance of needed protections.

DOL's proposed rule must be seen as part of a larger thinly-veiled effort by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to alter risk assessment methods by stealth across the regulatory agencies, after a bolder comprehensive overhaul met with strong agency resistance and finally complete rejection by a committee of experts convened by the National Academies. That expert committee issued its report in January 2007, concluding “that the OMB bulletin is fundamentally flawed” and recommending that, “it be withdrawn.” 

Nonetheless, many of the flawed OMB recommendations have re-emerged in this DOL proposal.

Earlier this year NRDC led an effort to prevent similar attacks made under the guise of risk assessment improvements to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) database. The IRIS database contains expert consensus evaluations of potential human health effects from exposure to more than 540 chemicals, including highly hazardous chemicals such as vinyl chloride, butadiene, benzene, lead, mercury, and asbestos

As NRDC testified in Congressional hearings earlier this summer, the new 2008 IRIS process introduces three new opportunities for the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and other non-health agencies to weigh in on EPA’s health assessments, where previously there was only one. Importantly, interagency comments and OMB comments for all three of the new intervention points are shielded from public view. 

The White House OMB proposed changes to risk assessment methods are part of a much broader agenda by the Bush Administration to weaken health protections for workers, the public, and the environment.  

About the Authors

Jennifer Sass

Senior Scientist, Federal Toxics, Health and Food, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

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