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Lawmakers, Labor Dept Dispute Worker Exposure Rule

Leading lawmakers accused the White House of acting in secret to make it harder to limit worker exposure to carcinogens and other dangerous chemicals in the workplace.

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Leading lawmakers on Wednesday accused the Bush administration of acting in secret to make it harder to limit worker exposure to carcinogens and other dangerous chemicals in the workplace.

The Labor Department is trying "to slip through a rule that may have a profound negative impact on the health and safety of American workers," Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairmen of the Senate and House labor committees, wrote in a letter to Labor Secretary Elaine Chao.

Labor Department officials disputed the accusation, but declined to disclose details of the proposed rule on workplace risk exposure now being reviewed by the White House Budget Office.

Among other changes, according to a House Education and Labor Committee aide, the proposed rule would create additional public notice and review by Labor Department political appointees before the Occupational Safety and Health Administration does the risk assessments that lead to limits on exposure to chemicals or toxins in the workplace.

The current assumption that workers serve for 45 years, and thus would be exposed to compounds such as asbestos or lead for 45 years, is also being revisited, according to the aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the rule was not yet final.

The aide confirmed the details based on a review of an early draft obtained by the committee.

Industry groups consider the current policy for establishing exposure limits overly stringent and have sought changes.

Leon R. Sequeira, assistant secretary for policy at the Labor Department, said, "The unfounded speculation misrepresents the content of the proposal under review" at the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Sequeira said administration policy prevented him from describing contents of the rule before it is published in the Federal Register. He couldn't say when that would happen, how long the public comment period will be or whether there will be public hearings on the rule.

In a letter last week to Miller, Sequeira quoted from an abstract of the proposed rule that said in part that it "requires DOL agencies to follow a consistent, transparent and reliable set of procedures when conducting risk assessments."

Kennedy and Miller claimed that no notice of the rule was published, as required, in a semiannual list of federal regulatory actions. They told Chao they were "concerned that the department would seek a rule change in near total secrecy to this point," and asked her to withdraw it.

Sequeira said the rule wasn't in the list of regulatory actions because the Labor Department didn't decide to pursue the rule until after the spring issue was published.

The draft of the rule was sent to the White House Budget Office on July 7, more than a month after the deadline agencies were given for end-of-administration rule proposals.

The issue was first reported Wednesday by The Washington Post.

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