My agency often gets criticized for how long it takes to publish a new standard, and there’s little doubt takes too long, but the criticism really is misdirected. I know how that sounds, like I’m defending the agency just because it’s my agency, but I’m not. There are many things to criticize within OSHA, and I’m a firm believer that constructive criticism can make a big difference in how the agency performs IF the criticism is justified. When it comes to how long it takes to promulgate a new standard, however, the criticism simply is not justified (what standards we choose to promulgate, now that’s a different discussion). In order to understand what I mean it is important to know the rules that an agency like OSHA operates under within the political crucible that is Washington, DC.
Rule 1: Never forget that Democrats and Republicans hate each other. I don’t mean individuals, as James Carville and Mary Matalin demonstrate, I mean the parties hate each other (since this is a blog about OSHA I won’t get into how dangerous that is for the long term survival of the country). What does is mean for OSHA? As the man said “Clowns to the left of me, Jokers to the right, here I am, Stuck in the middle with you. More than most agencies, and certainly disproportionately to our size, OSHA is a political lightening rod. And when the winds roar and the thunder crashes who gets hit by the lightening? Usually us career professionals, and we usually get hit right in the ass. It’s true that we are rarely the ones testifying on the Hill or getting called to the principal’s office (ie the Secretary’s office), but, when the dust settles, we’re the ones who have to do the work and respond to the criticisms. And that’s OK, we all know what our jobs entail and we’ve made a conscious decision to do them anyway. Most of us because we believe so strongly in what we do.
Rule 2: Our standard setting process is mostly set by the White House (through OMB) and various acts of Congress, with some influence from the courts. SBREFA (Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act of 1996), DQA (Data Quality Act, 2001) and the PRA (Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995) all add significant time to the rulemaking process (I think there are others as well). Interestingly enough, neither the White House nor Congress have to answer for this, OSHA does, usually in the form of the Secretary or Assistant Secretary testifying before a Congressional hearing.
Rule 3: Safety and Health policy in this country is not set by safety and health professionals, it’s set by attorneys with little or no understanding of safety and health. Did anyone notice that the last Assistant Secretary and both of his Deputy Assistant Secretaries were all lawyers?
What does this all mean for us at OSHA? Obviously that it takes years for the agency to promulgate a standard, which is, of course, exactly what Congress and the White House want. And, not only are we slowed down, it’s the ideal situation for the politicians on both sides. Think about it, they set the rules which slow us down, then they get to blame us for being slow. It’s a political exacta that can’t be beat.
Is it frustrating? Sure it is, but that’s OK because I remember my interview with William, in front of his wife and two small children, the day after he almost died in a trench collapse. It’s those two kids that keep me coming back.