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Labor secretary leaves legacy of worker protections and unfinished business

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With her resignation this week, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis leaves behind a department advocates say has adopted a renewed focus on enforcing worker safety laws but been unable to push through a number of long-sought regulations.

The first Hispanic woman to hold the top post at a Cabinet-level agency, Solis said in a letter to department employees that she planned to return to California, where she grew up.

Labor advocates credit her with restoring the department’s commitment to protecting workers, particularly vulnerable populations, and bringing stronger enforcement of worker safety laws. During her tenure, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Mine Safety and Health Administration expanded initiatives to crack down on repeat violators of safety and health laws – sometimes drawing the ire of the business community.

Yet the department hasn’t finalized a host of rules to protect workers that many in the labor community view as long overdue.

As the Center for Public Integrity has reported, a surprising resurgence of black lung disease has affected coal miners in Appalachia. For more than 15 years, experts and the government’s own scientists have pushed to lower the standard for exposure to the dust that causes black lung. In 2010, MSHA proposed a rule that would lower the limit, among other things, but it remains unfinished.

Similarly, OSHA announced in 2009 that it was starting the process of issuing a rule to address combustible dust – a hazard that, as the Center has reported, has killed or injured hundreds of workers during the past two decades. Yet rule development remains in the early stages.

OSHA has also been unable to finish rules to protect workers from harmful substances they breathe. Standards to lower exposures to beryllium and silica, both contaminants that can cause severe lung disease, have been in the works for years but remain incomplete.

“Where the administration has been a real disappointment has been in the regulatory department,” said Peg Seminario, director of safety and health for the AFL-CIO. This inability to finalize new rules, she said, is not the fault of Solis, but of a White House reluctant to issue new regulations.

Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat who has long been an outspoken worker advocate, issued a statement praising Solis as “a tireless advocate for all hardworking Americans.” President Obama cited her work in helping working families recover from the financial crisis.