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Safety activist: "Do we really want to roll back regulations and look more like China?" (2/23)

February 23, 2011
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Elizabeth Grossman, a widely publicized author and journalist whose writings have appeared in The Washington Post, Scientific American, Salon, The Nation, Mother Jones, Grist, and the Huffington Post, posted a blog on The Pump Handle yesterday blasting House Repubican attempts at what she called “the great leap backward.”

Wrote Grossman: “As I've watched the hearings House Republicans have been holding over the past couple of weeks on the economic impact of environmental and occupational health and safety regulations… I've been picturing the smog that hangs over Chinese cities. I've been thinking about the fatal despair of young high-tech workers at Foxconn and Samsung factories in China and South Korea, about the depressed wages and severe working conditions at factories in the Philippines, and about the electronics workers I met in Indonesia this past fall who overflowed with questions about the health effects of their working conditions.

“During the weeks of February 7 and 14 - in the run-up to the February 19 vote on the FY2011 budget bill - the House Education and Workforce, Energy and Commerce, Judiciary, Oversight, and Rules Committees have all held hearings examining how environmental and workplace safety regulations impact job creation.

“The House Republicans' premise is that the regulations created to implement current United States environmental and occupational health standards are costly impediments to job and business growth, and prevent the U.S. from fully competing as a manufacturing power in the global economy. These regulations, we've heard from Republican House members and from witnesses representing business associations and manufacturing companies, have caused the U.S. to lose jobs to foreign countries, particularly to developing Asian nations, like China. Without such regulatory obligations, these speakers imply, domestic manufacturing could be booming.

“By contrast, Democratic members and witnesses from academic institutions, non-governmental organizations, and also some businesses maintain that government regulations that safeguard occupational, environmental, and public health result in net benefits (including financial benefits) that outweigh any upfront financial costs of implementation - for instance, see University of Maryland law professor Rena Steinzor's testimony before the House Energy & Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Environment and Economics.

“The hearings' exchanges have largely been long on rhetoric and principles, and short on legislative specifics, with each side - and their witnesses - citing competing studies to prove their points.

“From what's been voiced by House Republicans, their goal appears to be removal of what they consider regulatory obstacles to industrial productivity - the legally enforceable occupational and environmental safety standards designed to protect workers and the public from adverse health effects of industrial processes. Regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency to enforce air-quality standards and by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to address workplace noise are among their top targets.

The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that 2.3 million people die each year in Asia from occupational accidents and work-related illnesses - or about 2 people every minute, according to figures from the Asia Resource Monitor Center. And it's well recognized that official occupational accident, illness and fatality numbers are likely incomplete given the large number of informal workers and problem of under-reporting, particularly of work-related illnesses.

Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books.

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