Regulatory Accountability Act Puts Workplace Protections, Asbestos Ban, At Risk

The Regulatory Accountability Act, or RAA for short, aims to modify the way that federal agencies enact new rules. This proposed bill places increased emphasis on how such regulations would affect the economy. Critics of the RAA argue it would result in a loss of protections for workers and consumers. It could ultimately make it more difficult for agencies to enact new safety regulations, including ones that protect workers from hazardous substances such as asbestos.

As with much of the legislation winding its way through Congress this year, the Senate and House have drafted drastically different versions of the Act. One version passed the House in January, in a 238-183 vote that had little Democratic support. The latest version, crafted in the Senate, was developed by Rob Portman (R-OH) and Heidi Heitcamp (D-ND). While few Democrats have supported earlier versions of the Act, Heitkamp defended the current draft, arguing:

“People who say that this additional engagement is going to take more time — it may take some more time on the front end, but you’ll get a better rule and a rule that can survive judicial scrutiny.”

To pass in the Senate, the Act will need the support of Democrats, particularly Claire McCaskill (D-MO) who is on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. McCaskill is working on another version bill that may be able to garner more Democratic support.

Nuts and Bolts of Regulatory Process

One of the main provisions of this bill is that federal agencies would have to release a statement about any proposed regulation that would affect more than $100 Million annually. Further, if a proposed regulation would impact more than $1 Billion every year, the agency would be required to allow more extensive hearings.

During those reviews, businesses and other groups affected by the regulation could interrogate the research and evidence supporting the need for and expected outcomes of the regulation. Additionally, the Act would allow judges more leeway to block parts of a regulation when certain provisions were opposed by affected businesses or other interest groups.

Several parts of the RAA have been supported by Democratic presidents, such as the need to have public notices and hearings, cost-benefit analyses and incorporation of the latest scientific and economic research to develop the regulation. This process takes years to complete, and critics of the RAA suggest future regulations could be stalled indefinitely if it were allowed to take effect.

The bill has garnered much support from business interest groups, who argue that excessive federal regulations hurt the economy, plain and simple. At the same time, public advocacy and consumer groups worry that the Act will prevent new regulations that provide safeguards for consumers, workers and overall public health.

Regulations and Asbestos: Still Waiting Federal Ban

Importantly, this bill could affect future workplace safety regulations regarding asbestos. While the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) did briefly ban asbestos in 1989, that rule was reversed two years later by a federal appeals court.

Meanwhile, asbestos is currently under review by the EPA as part of the new Toxic Substances Control Act. If the Regulatory Accountability Act is made into law, it would be more difficult for the EPA to enact a federal ban on asbestos. Even though asbestos has already been deemed lethal, companies affected by the ban could draw out the process of hearings and scrutiny on the regulation.

Clearly there is a need for more, not less, asbestos protection in the workplace. An Environmental Working Group review of federal records of deaths from asbestos-related diseases, like mesothelioma, found approximately 12,000-15,000 Americans die a year from asbestos exposure. A recent CDC study on mesothelioma deaths from 1999 to 2015 found that while there were 2,479 fatalities in 1999 that number increased to 2,597 in 2015.

Despite Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guidelines designed to limit exposure, individuals who work in the construction and shipbuilding industries continue to be at an inordinately higher risk. That same CDC study noted that of air samples collected at construction sites in 2003, 20 percent were above the federal maximum level for asbestos.

Shaping the Future of Workplace Regulations

Many argue that if the Regulatory Accountability Act passes, workers and consumers will feel the effects for years to come. Businesses may be able to stall regulations, arguing that such protections are either too expensive, or unnecessary safety concerns. For those working in occupations where asbestos exposure is a risk, like construction, this proposal is an important one to follow today, as it may change the shape of your workplace for many years to come.