Rushing NOT! to Protect Workers' Health

Following The Pump Handle's July 8 post "Secret Rule on OSHA Risk Assessment" (and July 10 here), a front-page Washington Post article provides more details on the Bush Administration's plan to "reform" the system used by OSHA and MSHA to assess workers' risk from toxic materials.  In U.S. Rushes to Change Workplace Toxin Rules, Post reporter Carol Leonnig obtained a draft copy of the proposed rule, which would direct the risk assessment assumptions and procedures used by MSHA and OSHA when developing regulations to protect workers health hazards.  Leonnig reports that Bush appointee, lawyer and "ethics advisor" Deborah Misir in DOL's Office of Policy worked with a contractor to develop the new risk asssessment plan, intentionally leaving career scientists out of the process.

Well, well, it's the same old playbook for the Bush Administration: Leave out the career staff who know most about the topic, assign a political appointee with no expertise to manage the process, and pay a hand-selected contractor to do the work.  That would be bad enough, but it gets worse.

The hand-selected contractor, who the Wash Post reports was paid $349,000 to prepare the new risk-assessment plan, is Ms. Diane Furchtgott-Roth, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.  She's well connected to the Bush Administration: she served as the chief of staff at the Council of Economic Advisers from 2001 to 2003, and then moved to DOL to serve from February 2003 until April 2005 as Secretary Chao's chief economist.  (And you'll love this one: she was an American Petroleum Institute economist from 1987 to 1991.)   Her firm Furchtgott-Roth Economic Enterprises: "solves business problems using economics," preparing "risk" assessments related to "investment opportunities," "financial risk management," and "trading and investment portfolios." 

Huh?   What about expertise in health sciences, epidemiology or public health?   Oh, sorry, this is the G.W. Bush playbook.

Last week, when Secretary Chao's office gets wind that a Washington Post reporter and others are asking questions about her mysterious risk assessment proposal under review at OMB (and official details are not provided, not even to Members of Congress who request it), Ms. Furchtgott-Roth conveniently writes an op-ed in The New York Sun, defending the plan.

"It's is good news that the Labor Department is proposing new rules for evaluating different health risks.  ...Some OSHA rules have more stringent standards than do American trading partners, with the result that businesses have an incentive to move production offshore."

Let the race to the bottom begin.  Plus, I'd like to see the empirical data to support her assertion that worker safety regulations specifically drive companies oversees. 

In her op-ed New Rule for OSHA Furchtgott-Roth displays complete ignorance on how OSHA and MSHA assess health risks.  She asserts:

"That's why it's important to use real epidemiological data on job-related illness and accidents to measure true dangers to workers."

What does she think they use now?  Fake epidemiology?  Besides, it's not like OSHA and MSHA are churning out rules to protect workers from health hazard.  In the last 10 years, OSHA issued one health standard (on hexavalent chromium) and MSHA issued its first ever in 2001 (on diesel particulate matter).  

The former chief economist doesn't even get simple facts correct in her op-ed.  She describes the former head of OMB's OIRA, John Graham, as a "Harvard Professor."   Well, he hasn't been at Harvard School of Public Health since 2001, and is currently the Dean of the Pardee Rand Graduate School.  Readers of The New York Sun might not care about getting facts correct, but we do, especially from individuals who are paid to be experts on a topic.  Obviously, attention to detail is not Ms. Furchtgott-Roth's forte.  In the original version of her op-ed, she wrote:

"When the government make regulations, it need solid evidence that what is proposed will in fact protect workers."

Her errors go on:

"OSHA has long had a problem with transparency in how it conducts risk assessment to determine safe occupational exposure levels to hazardous chemicals for workers."

Huh?  What could be more transparent than having weeks upon weeks of public hearings in which industry and worker representatives can grill OSHA health scientists exactly about the Agency's risk assessment, including the epidemiological studies used to support it? 

Ms. Furchtgott-Roth and other critics of health protective standards for workers like to hide behind terms like "transparency" and "sound science."  But we know, that not what this is really about.  Let's be blunt: It's a debate about values.  How much should be spent to protect workers' health.  And if an OSHA or MSHA risk assessment says that the population-based risk of losing lung function, or developing chronic immunological problems, or developing cancer is small, than Joe Employer shouldn't have to bear the cost of preventing those conditions. 

Do value judgments and ethics go hand-in-hand?  It struck me as strange that Ms. Deborah Miser, the political appointee responsible for this risk assessment proposal, was a former White House Ethics Advisor.  The American Heritage dictionary defines "ethics" as

"that branch of philosophy dealing with values relating to human conduct, with respect to the rightness and wrongness of certain actions and to the goodness and badness of the motives and ends of such actions."

Hmmm....  I guess it is safe to assume that Ms. Miser didn't really have any special expertise to be an ethics advisor, just like she doesn't have any special training on risk assessment.  Rather than getting all caught up in what the risk assessment plan is, why don't we explore the "ethics" or at least the "waste, fraud and abuse" issues related to this project.

  • Why did Secretary Chao and her political appointees spend taxpayer money to hire a contractor to put together a risk assessment rule, when there are government experts in risk assessment in their own building and across the street at NIOSH and EPA?
  • Why was the contract awarded to the former DOL chief economist when her firm has NO health risk asssessment expertise?
  • Why is DOL spending resources on this new initiative, when it has projects in the pipeline that have been languishing for 7 1/2 years?  For example, what happened to DOL's promise to have a proposed rule to protect workers from the food-flavoring agency diacetyl ready in January 2008 for small-business review?

And then there's the larger question about this administration: How many rules will it bend or break in order to erect more regulatory hurdles -- designed to forestall health and safety regulations even after a new president takes over -- before the clock runs in January 2009?

Celeste Monforton, MPH worked at OSHA and MSHA from 1991-2001.  While at OSHA she was involved in DOL's efforts in 1994-1995 to hold off alleged "reforms" to the risk assessment process which were making their way through House and Senate Committees.  Bad ideas never die.  

P.S. I was wrong when I assumed and suggested (here) that another political appointee at DOL (Ms. Suey Howe) had the lead on this risk assessment process.

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Not a popular view, I know, but 'career scientists' in this context are not to be trusted without scrutiny.
Unfortunately, the nation undervalues science so badly that a career scientist cannot succeed unless they publish outside the realm of science. This means somewhere between fiction and science fiction, usually fueled by political sensationalism.
Bold letters and quotation marks on words that are not actual quotes are a serious warning sign that science has been replaced by sarcasm.

Dissenting views deleted from this site within 6 days on the average.

By Thomas Jefferson (not verified) on 23 Jul 2008 #permalink

That comment makes no sense. There are thousands of career scientists who do great work, and under lots of scrutiny. In any case, they have decades of experience in their fields, and political appointees have much less.

The problem is, lots of career scientists are leaving government because their work isn't valued. This latest move from OMB is just one more in a long line of examples.

Thomas, we don't delete posted comments from our site.

By Celeste Monforton (not verified) on 23 Jul 2008 #permalink

We don't delete comments unless they're spam or trolling. Ad hominem attacks that don't actually say anything of substance or contribute to a conversation are fair game for deletion.

Kudos to you for making Pump Handle readers-- not to mention the Washington Post(!)-- aware of this most recent threat to worker health and safety. Yet another example of the Bush administration putting their political agendas before science.

By Christina (not verified) on 24 Jul 2008 #permalink

Data is what it is.

By Thomas Jefferson (not verified) on 25 Jul 2008 #permalink

It's the interpreters that bear watching.
It's difficult to mix passion with data. One usually taints with the other.

By Thomas Jefferson (not verified) on 25 Jul 2008 #permalink