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Spared of Demagoguery, How Regulation Really Works

Michael Lipsky

In 2011, five workers died in Hawaii when unexploded fireworks they were attempting to defuse exploded. Yesterday, at a hearing in Washington, D.C., a federal panel responsible for regulating the treatment of hazardous chemicals announced its recommendations after a thorough study of the incident.

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) called for the promulgation by various agencies of safety standards for disposing of unexploded fireworks.

The Board also found that in assessing contractors’ or subcontractors’ qualifications to do the work the rules governing contracting did not accord high priority to safety and performance measures. The panel proposed ways to close these loopholes.

At the hearing a compelling video prepared by the CSB staff showed how the workers at first followed accepted practices for defusing fireworks—burning after soaking in diesel fuel—but then improvised, to fatal effect, when that method did not work. From Honolulu members of the families of the five victims asked questions of the panel by telephone, followed in person by federal officials from affected agencies, and representatives of unions and citizen groups.

In essence, the Board and its staff were mobilized by an horrific event, found a broad chink in the regulatory fabric, and sought to fill it. No one argued with the value of the recommendations, although a representative of the fireworks manufacturers assured the panel that her members followed the highest of industry standards.

This is the regulatory process outside the 24-hour posturing that regulations “hurt jobs” or “create uncertainty” in the corporate world—a thorough inquiry by government investigators, their preparation of a thoughtful report vetted first to interested parties and then forwarded to a small board of appointed commissioners, followed by a well-staged hearing in an anonymous room in Washington.

The list of agencies being urged to adopt the Board’s recommendations is a long one—the Environmental Protection Agency, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the National Fire Protection Association, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, to name some of them. Of course there’s more that could be done, and each year these agencies have fewer resources with which to work. But, without the bombast, this is the way we safeguard the health and lives of workers who deserve better from neglectful private contractors doing the public’s business.