WASHINGTON -- The White House has ruled that imposing stricter health standards in the workplace could make workers poorer, and, therefore, sicker.
The ruling by the White House Office of Management and Budget rejects a Labor Department effort to protect workers from air pollution.
OMB told the Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration that the proposed regulation could cause employers to lay off workers and stop paying hazard pay.
That would lead to lower payrolls, OMB said, and studies show that workers without jobs or with low-paying jobs have poorer health than more highly paid counterparts.
"This is nonsense," Charles Levenstein, a University of Massachusetts professor of worker and environmental policy, said yesterday.
Mr. Levenstein said the letter represented a "bizarre" twist in White House anti-regulatory policy and said OSHA scientists told him they initially had thought it was a joke of some kind.
The rule would set maximum limits on several hundred different contaminants in air breathed by workers in agriculture, construction and maritime industries. Workers in other industries already enjoy most protections in the proposed rules.
OSHA had estimated that the rule would save from eight to 13 lives annually. However, James B. MacRae Jr., head of the OMB office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, said that if it led to layoffs and lower pay for hazardous work, it could lead to the death of more than 22 workers a year.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., chairman of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, called the letter "deregulation ideology run amok." OMB, he said, "is saying that healthy working conditions are bad for workers' health."