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Last-minute Obama ruling could cost Gulf Coast good jobs

Regardless of whether you are a Democrat or Republican, we can all get behind government regulations that protect blue-collar workers from being exposed to hazardous materials. That is why, as the Obama administration wound down, I took notice when the Occupational Safety and Health Administration passed a rule to impose stringent limits on worker exposure to a chemical element known as beryllium.

However, the more I learn about this last-minute decision by the Obama administration, the more upset I am that they decided to take this unilateral action that will hurt the Gulf Coast by jeopardizing thousands of good jobs in our region. As far as I can tell, this new rule will not improve anyone’s health, or protect workers from any actual harm.

OSHA’s initial intent was to regulate worker exposure to beryllium-alloy production, which is reasonable. But what OSHA ultimately issued was an expanded rule that included exposure to trace amounts of beryllium that are found in the abrasive blasting industry. This is akin to treating apples and oranges the same: The concentration of beryllium in beryllium-alloy components can be up to 20,000 times the concentration of what is found in abrasive blasting. And the toxicity of beryllium alloy is well established, while nothing similar has been found in abrasive blasting materials.

This is important for the Gulf Coast, because the maritime business relies heavily on abrasive blasting to clean the hulls of ships. Across our region, thousands of workers are employed doing this very important task. But now, their jobs are at risk because this new regulation places heavy regulatory and financial burdens on employers.

OSHA asserts this rule will “prevent 96 premature deaths each year,” but provides no scientific evidence to back up this claim. How can OSHA make such an important statement, but offer no reports, documents or evidence? People who work within regulated industries should have the right to review the government claims that could impact both their health and livelihood. It is a shame OSHA has made this very serious assertion without proof.

The rulemaking process also lacked transparency. In August 2015, when OSHA first publicly announced it was considering a rule on beryllium exposure, it made no mention of looking at the effects of trace levels of beryllium on workers in construction and shipyards. Yet, when it released its final rule, it included new regulations on workers coming into contact with trace levels of beryllium. The result is the American people had no opportunities to engage OSHA before it made its final ruling. Typically, the public is allowed to participate in an official comment period on any proposed rulemaking by a federal agency.

I am not going to pretend the abrasive blasting business is easy work, without risks. It is hard work and it can be dangerous. This is why to ensure worker and workplace safety, the industry is already heavily regulated, and subject to at least 27 OSHA rules requiring extensive worker protections and training. The federal agency is also seemingly ignoring the fact that of the 400,000 people working in the abrasive blasting industry in the United States, there are no documented cases of anyone being made sick from exposure to trace levels of beryllium.

Even if well intentioned, Washington bureaucrats should not be passing regulations that hurt thousands of workers across the Gulf Coast, without giving the public any time to respond or providing any evidence. Unless the government can prove this regulation can save lives, its application to the construction and maritime industries should be eliminated.

Ronnie Shows, a Democrat, represented Mississippi’s 4th Congressional District from 1999 to 2003. He also served as the state’s Southern District highway commissioner from 1988 to 1998.

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