The Prolonged Creation of a Key Public Safety Rule
By Taylor Lincoln and Negah Mouzoon
Federal agencies have long been the object of scorn and criticism by political actors who claim that the employees of public health agencies like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) act as unelected, unaccountable autocrats who hand down burdensome safety rules with little concern about their effects on businesses. But the pro- cess of writing these rules—which serve to put the laws that Congress passes into prac- tice—is usually long, complicated, and involves significant input from affected industries and other stakeholders. Additionally, agencies need to be meticulous in fulfilling myriad arcane steps or risk having their final rules overturned by court challenges. In fact, the fed- eral agencies that are charged with protecting public health and safety may be some of the most tightly “regulated” entities in the United States.
This report recounts the creation of an important rule that was badly needed to protect workers—and, sometimes, passersby—from the dangers posed by cranes at construction sites. The final rule, published in August 2010, enhances worker training and certification requirements and adds protocols for job-site analyses before putting cranes into use. But the rule was a long time in the making.
By 1998, federal construction safety standards for the operation of cranes and derricks were badly out of date. Most of the standards were from 1971, when hydraulic cranes (now prevalent) were still rare. Meanwhile, many industry associations’ protocols were out of sync with federal rules.1
Construction accidents have historically been the leading cause of workplace injuries and fatalities, and cranes have been implicated in a quarter to a third of those accidents.2 In the late 1990s, construction accidents involving cranes were killing 80 to 100 workers a year. OSHA later estimated that a modernized rule would prevent about 20 to 40 of those annual tragedies.
Not just worker safety advocates, but even industry wanted an updated cranes and der- ricks rule. Industry officials, OSHA later recounted, “were concerned that accidents involv- ing cranes and derricks continued to be a significant cause of fatal and other serious inju- ries on construction sites and believed that an updated standard was needed to address the causes of these accidents and to reduce the number of accidents.”3
If ever there were a rule that seemingly should have breezed to adoption, this was it. The urgency of preventing avoidable deaths and injuries was clear, the regulated industries were asking for a new standard, and a large committee of business and labor representa- tives would reach near unanimous consensus on a draft rule very early in the process.