When Over-Regulation Creates an Environment for Misinformation

Since taking office, President Donald Trump has issued 67 deregulatory actions, achieving $8.1 billion in lifetime net regulatory cost savings, which in turn has led to lower unemployment numbers and increased economic growth. The new administration has made the elimination of overbearing and unnecessarily stifling regulations passed by the Obama administration a focal point of its agenda, and it is working.

That’s not to say that all regulation is bad. In the Reagan administration, our mandate at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was twofold: first, to ensure that there was effective regulation in place to protect America’s working men and women, and second, to find and repeal regulations that were ineffective, unnecessarily burdensome and cost prohibitive. Overriding was the predicate that all interested parties would be heard from in a free and open environment, whether it was labor, management, the scientific community or nongovernmental organizations. As anyone working in a factory, on the docks or at a construction site will attest, labor regulations are an integral part of keeping American workers safe and healthy.

When the White House “orders” that something get done or expedited, it is too easy to get caught up in regulatory zeal, pushing through new rules with less-than-acceptable scientific justification on issues that have the real potential to threaten industry productivity without the concomitant benefit of demonstrably improving the safety and health of workers. The rush to force through regulation is not only bad policy and economics but also creates a breeding ground for crony capitalism and opportunities for some companies to use the resulting confusion of last-minute or “midnight” regulation to mislead the public by disingenuous attacks on their competitors for economic benefit.

Unfortunately, this appears to be exactly the case with new rules governing worker exposure to beryllium, which were rammed through OSHA at the 11th hour of the Obama presidency. Just days before Trump took office, OSHA issued its final rule regarding beryllium, a naturally occurring mineral that can be toxic to people when exposed to it in large quantities. Elements of the new rules were added on without the benefit of public disclosure beforehand precluding thorough public testimony and commentary — a true “midnight” regulation.

Mitigating beryllium exposure may seem like a commonsense policy — and OSHA’s initial proposed rule was the reasonable result of a productive discussion between industry, labor and government. The original regulation was designed to regulate worker exposure to beryllium in the alloy manufacturing process and specifically exempted “those performing abrasive blasting work in the construction and shipyards industries.”

However, when the final rule was issued in early January 2017, OSHA did an abrupt about-face, unilaterally deciding to regulate exposure to trace levels of beryllium in all industries. Moreover, it was sold as a measure to ensure worker safety, but because of the over two dozen current OSHA regulations, workers in industries such as construction and maritime, which use a process called abrasive blasting in their normal operations, were never threatened by beryllium exposure to begin with.

After significant industry pushback, the Trump administration delayed the newly proposed regulations twice, and changes were proposed to the original rules that were not as damaging as the initial regulations. However, since these industries were blindsided by OSHA’s overreach and had little time to inform their customers and industry partners about what these new regulations meant for their businesses, there has been a flood of misinformation and confusion spread by various entities for what appears to be their own economic benefit.

The abrasive blasting industry is comprised of various blasting media companies, including crushed glass, garnet, Starblast staurolite sand, aluminum oxide and coal slag. Blasters themselves choose the media that best works for their needs, either from a cost or efficiency standpoint. Due to some of the confusion created by the beryllium rules, the competition between these abrasive media producers has intensified. Unfortunately, some in the industry see this confusion as an opportunity to spread false claims about how these rules will impact certain blasting media but not others.

One such target of these attacks has been coal slag. A scare tactic that has been deployed to push abrasive blasters to glass products has been marketing campaigns that claim their products are beryllium-free or contain nondetectable levels of beryllium while simultaneously telling customers that coal slags will be the only ones hit by the beryllium rules.

To use the phrase our current president so famously coined, this is in fact fake news. Marketing campaigns like these, distort the facts for corporate greed, seizing on an economic opportunity created by hasty over-regulation. The misuse of safety and health issues has been seen before, but its outcome is never to the benefit of working women and men. 

This perversion of the rule-making process, first by the Obama OSHA and now by some in the abrasive blasting industry, is the direct result of the previous administration overstepping its bounds to rush through regulations that only served to hinder economic growth. Trump was elected to repeal senseless regulations like OSHA’s beryllium rules, which lead to industry infighting and deceit. So far, the president has been successful in cutting this type of red tape, but it is now up to his Department of Labor to step in and clean up the mess made by the big government administration that preceded them to truly unleash the full potential of the U.S. economy.


Mark Cowan is a former chief of staff at the Department of Labor and a former member of the Trump transition team.

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