BOSTON -- The Bush administration agreed yesterday to lift a suspension on proposed health rules that the Labor Department says are needed to limit chemical exposure faced by 8 million U.S. workers.
But the department's victory was limited, and it did not ensure that the new health standards will take effect.
With the suspension lifted, Labor Secretary Lynn Martin can continue procedures to make the proposed rules final. But critics say she has caved in to a controversial new Bush administration theory that workers may be better off in some cases if health and safety regulations are eased.
Under the theory, the Labor Department -- and possibly all other federal agencies -- will have to consider how new rules affect business costs and profits. The idea, proposed last week by the White House Office of Management and Budget, holds that less workplace regulation can boost employers' profits, thus raising employee wages and the ability to pay for things such as health insurance.
The OMB used the theory last week to block the department's further work on chemical-exposure limits for workers in three industries: construction, maritime and agriculture. Stunned by the move, department officials called the concept badly flawed and indicated that they would fight it.
But in the agreement apparently struck yesterday, Ms. Martin's top policy chief reversed course. Assistant Labor Secretary Nancy Risque-Rohrbach told the OMB that in exchange for lifting the rules suspension, Labor Department officials would agree to "begin to study the questions you've raised as expeditiously as possible."
"We understand the objective to be to weigh the risks to workers from exposure to toxic substances with the risks associated with lowering those same workers' incomes," Ms. Risque-Rohrbach said in a letter to President Bush's regulation chief, James B. MacRae.
Ms. Risque-Rohrbach also said the department would suggest that the OMB apply the same standard to all regulatory agencies.
That further enraged critics who argue that such a move could curtail the regulatory powers of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration and other government agencies, effectively putting them under the OMB's strict control.
"It's troubling that the Labor Department is backing down under irresponsible pressure from OMB that will inevitably damage workers lives and health," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., said last night.
Mr. Kennedy is scheduled to question department officials today at a special hearing of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee that he has called to examine the controversy.
Health and safety advocates have criticized the new Bush regulation policy.
"Essentially, a deal was cut," said Peg Seminario, director of health and safety for the national AFL-CIO. "It gives credence and creditability to something that is very disturbing."
According to the government's own figures, more than 33,000 workers a year are disabled because of excessive chemical exposure in the three industries that would be regulated. As many as 12 workers die each year.
But citing a controversial private study that the Labor Department itself has questioned, the OMB has suggested that one worker dies because of lower incomes for each $7.5 million in regulatory expenses incurred by business.
In her initial response, Ms. Risque-Rohrbach questioned OMB's theory. She said Ms. Martin "feels very strongly" that the new rules on chemical exposure in the workplace were needed and "should not be delayed."
Under the agreement, the department can now go forward with writing those proposed rules but will have to, at least, address the question of possible financial costs to workers when the proposals are up for public comment.
Department officials said last night that they could not predict
when that public comment period would be. Nor could they rule out the possibility that the OMB will at that point again move to block enactment.
Steven Hofman, Ms. Martin's spokesman, insisted that the department had not conceded that the new OMB policy applied to the proposed chemical standard rules or any other potential health standards.