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Agency Oversight: Standards Board

Posted on Feb 10, 2010
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A Broken Standard-Setting Process

The seven members of the Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board ("Standards Board") are appointed by the governor. There are designated positions for management, labor, occupational safety, occupational health, and the general public.

However, there is no requirement that board members have the type of scientific expertise needed to understand the standards under consideration.

While the Standards Board has industrial hygienists on its staff, it has no toxicologists or other medical experts. It has access to the scientific expertise of the Hazard Evaluation System and Information Service (HESIS), part of the Department of Public Health.

However, despite the expertise at its disposal, the political appointees on the Standards Board are not required to base their decisions on sound scientific evidence. As a result, rulemaking has become a highly politicized process.

Compounding the problem is the fact that the Standards Board aims for consensus between stakeholders before it adopts a regulation. If labor and management cannot reach consensus, the Standards Board has delayed for years, and even decades, on needed regulations. When consensus is reached, it usually makes for weaker regulations because labor is vastly outnumbered by employers and their researchers on these advisory committees. Few, if any, labor organizations in California employ scientific staff.

Cal/OSHA is charged with enforcing the fundamental principle in federal and state laws that workers have a right to healthy and safe workplaces. The law intended Cal/OSHA to be an advocate for worker health and safety, not to require consensus or agreement before issuing regulations between regulated employers and the workers the agency is charged with protecting.

Federal and state laws do not require a balancing of worker safety and health with industry profits. Instead of expeditious standard setting based on scientific evidence, workers die and suffer serious injuries on the job while the process drags on, slowed by the struggle for consensus and navigating the highly politicized process of the board. Rulemaking on heat illness prevention is an example of both.


A Case in Point: Heat Illness Prevention Standards

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Cal/OSHA received reports of workers becoming ill from heat stress as early as the 1980’s. But attempts throughout the 1980’s and 90’s to adopt a heat illness prevention standard failed.

In 1999, Cal/OSHA convened an advisory committee of labor and management stakeholders to reach consensus on its proposed standard. Four advisory committees met in 1999, 2000 and 2001. None reached consensus and no proposal was ever put before the Standards Board. In the heat wave of 2005, thirteen workers died.

In the face of these highly publicized deaths and with increased pressure from Worksafe and other labor advocates, in August 2005, the Standards Board adopted emergency “bare bones” regulations which became final regulations in June 2006. However, only outdoor workers were covered by the new regulation despite heat-related fatalities in warehouses and other indoor workplaces.

The limited standard was clearly inadequate. Since adoption of the final regulation, eleven more California workers have died of heat-related causes.

Labor advocates forced the Standards Board to meet twice more in June and July 2009 to adopt emergency regulations to strengthen the 2006 standard. The Standards Board deadlocked. Hoping for a stronger regulation before the next heat season, DOSH submitted a proposal to the Standards Board on October 15, 2009, only to have the Board reject it because it had not been vetted, that is, consensus hadn’t been reached between labor and management stakeholders. At the end of 2009, workers are still waiting for stronger heat regulations. Click here to read more about Worksafe's role in protecting workers from heat illness.

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