Saturday, November 19, 2005

OSHA Alliance with Chemical Council: From Ridiculous to Unethical

Chemical manufacturers don't have many friends these days. Everyone's always getting upset about toxic chemicals being spewed into the air and water, cancer and all that icky stuff.

It didn't help that they recently killed Senator Jon Corzine's (D-NJ) chemical plant security bill that would, in part, have made plants secure by requiring them to consider inherently safer processes. It also doesn't help that they're behind the Bush administration's strident opposition to the European Community's proposed new chemical program that would reverse the current practice of treating chemicals as innocent until proven guilty by the illnesses and deaths of workers and consumers. And then there's the years they've spent "manufacturing doubt" about our entire scientific and regulatory system designed to protect people's health. (And that's just the most recent history. For a more comprehensive picture of what the chemical industry has contributed to the safety and health of American citizens, check out Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner's excellent book Deceit and Denial.)

Luckily, the American Chemistry Council (formerly the Chemical Manufacturers Association) has a friend who feels its pain: the Occupational Safety and Health Administration which has formed a new Alliance with the ACC so that all of their little voluntary programs -- OSHA's Voluntary Protection Programs (VPP) and the ACC's Responsible Care® initiative -- can "dialogue" together (whatever that means). In fact, with this Alliance, ACC has basically enlisted OSHA in the association's membership campaign.

So what does this Alliance mean, aside from the usual press release, photo ops, fancy pens and signing ceremonies? Well, let's see. Basicially, to quote the official agreement: (AGREEMENT ESTABLISHING AN ALLIANCE BETWEEN THE OCCUPATIONAL SAFETY AND HEALTH ADMINISTRATION U.S. DEPARTMENT OF LABOR AND THE AMERICAN CHEMISTRY COUNCIL), OSHA and ACC will
  • Promote membership in each others' program to potential companies and program auditors.

  • Work with OSHA to provide expertise in the development of training and education programs for VPP evaluators (including VPP Regional staff) and Responsible Care auditors, regarding the similarities and differences in the two programs and communicate such information to appropriate individuals.
Before gettting down to business, let's take a minute of have a bit of fun ridiculing them for a couple of seconds. Check out this sentence, it's just so....Washington:
"OSHA and ACC will continue to work with the synergies between the two programs in order to leverage resources and work on the continued goals of safety and health."
You just can't get much better than that.

OK, enough fun. Now let's talk about government ethics, or lack thereof. Turns out that this Alliance is a bit more than the usual meaningless waste of taxpayer dollars by an agency that's evading its mission. As a matter of fact, I'll come right out and say it: This Alliance with the ACC borders on unethical. Anyone from the Department of Labor's Inspector General's office listening?

I'll explain.

ACC is a membership association of chemical companies. In order to be a member of ACC, member companies must commit to complying with the Responsible Care® program. But Responsible Care is actually a mixed blessing for ACC. On one hand it is intended to give the organization a more responsible image with the general public and, at least in the case of chemical plant security, to sell Responsible Care® as the model for a federal program. (ACC is actually promoting chemical plant security long as they're based on the Responsible Care® program.)

On the other hand, however, ACC is losing members(partially due to high memberships fees and allegedly ineffective advocacy) and doesn't want the Responsible Care® program to make the problem worse, or scare off potential members who don't want to comply with a program that goes "above and beyond government requirements," as the ACC likes to boast.

ACC recently revised Responsible Care® , replacing its ineffective self-audit process with a mandatory third-party auditing requirement. That may have enhanced the credibility of Responsible Care® , but it certainly didn't help their membership much. Obviously, the less burdensome ACC can make the program seem, the better its bottom line. And what better way to make the program seem attractive than to have OSHA on board training Responsible Care® auditors (who eventually audit ACC members) , selling the program along with the OSHA-sponsored VPP, and giving Responsible Care (and ACC membership) OSHA's official stamp of approval. In other words, OSHA has signed onto ACC's membership-building campaign as a full partner.

If ACC wants to have a mandatory safety program, more power to them. If OSHA thinks the program is good enough to praise, go for it. But this Alliance, with OSHA going around arm in arm with ACC to promote ACC's proprietary program, essentially making it easier for companies to join, is on a bit of a different scale.

Doesn't anyone else see anything not quite kosher about this?

I mean, can you imagine what the Republicans and Rush Limbaugh types would have done if Bill Clinton's OSHA had gotten actively involved on the union side of organizing campaigns, going around educating workers about the benefits of organizing a union? (And union membership, unlike business association membership, is supposed to be a right promoted by the federal government -- at least back before the Department of Labor became a subsidiary of the Department of Commerce).

Wouldn't it be nice to have at least one house of Congress back again so that our legislators could actually hold some meaningful oversight hearings about how OSHA and other compliance agencies have strayed from their original intent?

In OSHA's case, the original intent was:
To assure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women; by authorizing enforcement of the standards developed under the Act; by assisting and encouraging the States in their efforts to assure safe and healthful working conditions; by providing for research, information, education, and training in the field of occupational safety and health; and for other purposes.
...And where does "assisting industry associations to build membership" come in?