Until Hank Paulson came along, my favorite Bush cabinet member was undoubtedly Mrs. Mitch McConnell, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao. The manipulation of jobs and cost data during her tenure has been breathtaking, and it allowed the administration to get away with happy-talking the economy for the first seven years of their rule. In addition, her reflexive support of industry over workers should have led to the Department being renamed. But the combination of her relatively low profile and Paulson’s rare combination of abject incompetence and massive ego caused a shift in the league table and increased attention to the Treasury. But as the country prepares to finish up its eight year bid, administration officials are scrambling to define their legacy before they leave office.
Here’s Chao’s opening salvo:
The Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration has promulgated many fewer safety rules than in the past. The Government Accountability Office issued two reports last summer criticizing Labor for its enforcement of wage and hour laws. The agency has also been skewered for its enforcement of mine safety laws, and for imposing lower fines on firms found in violation of them.
Chao brushes such critiques aside as so much political rhetoric. “This department is probably the most partisan of all the departments,” she said. “I think people have very different world views about this department and about what is best for the workforce.”
She said that much of the criticism of her stewardship somehow misses the big picture: that workers have become safer under her tenure. “Our workers today [are] safer and healthier than they were eight years ago. The facts speak for themselves,” she said in a recent interview.
Rather than focusing solely on enforcement, Chao said her agency has taken a “strategic approach” to workers’ welfare that relies heavily on employer outreach and education. The approach is often at odds with what many labor advocates promote, she said, but the results have been record-low injury and illness rates for employees. The agency also boasts record recoveries of pay and pensions unfairly denied workers, she said.
“Together with our enforcement strategy has been a strategy of educational outreach,” Chao said. “We want to make sure that workers know their rights and that employers know their obligations. That is the best way to protect workers.”
This stringent emphasis on worker education and safety was news to me. Had I been giving Chao short shrift all these years? According to this WaPo piece about OSHA, (a division of the Department of Labor) the answer is “apparently not”:
In early 2001, an epidemiologist at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration sought to publish a special bulletin warning dental technicians that they could be exposed to dangerous beryllium alloys while grinding fillings. Health studies showed that even a single day’s exposure at the agency’s permitted level could lead to incurable lung disease.
After the bulletin was drafted, political appointees at the agency gave a copy to a lobbying firm hired by the country’s principal beryllium manufacturer, according to internal OSHA documents. The epidemiologist, Peter Infante, incorporated what he considered reasonable changes requested by the company and won approval from key directorates, but he bristled when the private firm complained again.
“In my 24 years at the Agency, I have never experienced such indecision and delay,” Infante wrote in an e-mail to the agency’s director of standards in March 2002. Eventually, top OSHA officials decided, over what Infante described in an e-mail to his boss as opposition from “the entire OSHA staff working on beryllium issues,” to publish the bulletin with a footnote challenging a key recommendation the firm opposed.
Current and former career officials at OSHA say that such sagas were a recurrent feature during the Bush administration, as political appointees ordered the withdrawal of dozens of workplace health regulations, slow-rolled others, and altered the reach of its warnings and rules in response to industry pressure.
The result is a legacy of unregulation common to several health-protection agencies under Bush: From 2001 to the end of 2007, OSHA officials issued 86 percent fewer rules or regulations termed economically significant by the Office of Management and Budget than their counterparts did during a similar period in President Bill Clinton’s tenure, according to White House lists.
Among the regulations proposed by OSHA’s staff but scuttled by political appointees was one meant to protect health workers from tuberculosis. Although OSHA concluded in 1997 that the regulation could avert as many as 32,700 infections and 190 deaths annually and save $115 million, it was blocked by opposition from large hospitals.
In the summer, the agency decided against moving further toward the regulation of crystalline silica, the tiny fibrous material in cement and stone dust that causes lung disease or cancer. OSHA promised a scientific peer review of the health risks by early 2005 and then by early 2007, but it never acted. Regulating silica exposures would have prevented an estimated 41 silicosis deaths and 20 to 40 lung cancers annually, according to OSHA.
In the spring, political appointees quietly scrapped work on another long-pending regulation of hazardous exposure to ionizing radiation in mailrooms, food warehouses, and hospitals and airports. It cited “resource constraints and other priorities” — the same reason officials gave for withdrawing more than a dozen regulatory proposals in 2001.
[In 2002], Ira Wainless, a senior industrial hygienist at OSHA, finished drafting a warning to auto mechanics that brake linings contained dangerous asbestos fibers. Health experts and lawmakers had called for such a bulletin, but attorneys for major car and brake manufacturers worried that it would be cited in lawsuits by mechanics seeking damages for asbestos-related disease.
Although Wainless’s draft was approved by all of OSHA’s directorates by mid-2003, Richard Fairfax, director of enforcement programs, was mindful of industry concerns. “Our recommendation is not to go forward,” he said in a note to the head of the agency’s science and technology office. “With the various asbestos litigation in progress and the compensation issues, the issuance of this may complicate matters.”
A senior OSHA health enforcement official told Wainless’s boss in an internal note that year that “we are under the understanding . . . it was NOT supposed to be going out.” Wainless persisted, however, and over the next two years sent four drafts to Henshaw’s office to meet what another OSHA official described in an internal e-mail as “requests for minor changes” by the agency’s deputy director.
I wonder if these are the facts of which Chao was speaking…