A05: BUILD AN ELECTRONIC ENVIRONMENT, SAFETY, AND HEALTH ASSISTANCE RESOURCE FOR BUSINESS
INTERNET ACCESS TO ENVIRONMENT, SAFETY, AND HEALTH REGULATORY INFORMATION TO REDUCE COSTS, IMPROVE AWARENESS, AND ENHANCE UNDERSTANDING Imagine this: A dry cleaner worries about cleaning solvent spills. It hasn't happened yet, but it could. He knows there must be regulatory requirements on this subject. He sits down at a computer and goes to a free Internet site. With a key word search, he discovers that the key question is whether spills are a reportable quantity. At the click of a button, he transfers to a site where, in real time, he uses the RQ.CALCULATOR to determine what he would have to report for the size of the container he uses. He presses another button and finds out where to report, as well as whom to call locally for help to clean up if a spill ever happens.
The federal government has recognized the importance to the regulated community of quick access to environment, safety, and health regulatory information. Systems such as the Environmental Protection Agency's hot lines allow telephone access to regulatory specialists who can provide information on the status of emerging requirements or answer compliance-related questions on a rapid-response basis. The government has also developed hundreds of electronically accessible libraries and databases containing information such as government-sponsored software, research reports, and guidance materials to satisfy the demand for electronically accessible information. Today, the Internet greatly expands such services by providing instantaneous access to a vast array of information. However, with over 60 federal agencies in existence to assist or regulate business, finding what you need can be complicated and time consuming. Additionally, without proper interfaces to integrate the information into a context that can be easily understood, the sheer volume of raw information on the Internet leaves many users feeling overwhelmed.
The Clinton Administration has taken the first step in addressing this problem by developing the U.S. Business Advisor -- the one-stop electronic link to government for business. The Advisor provides an easy way for business people to get answers to frequently asked questions; find how to information; search through federal information; browse government documents; and view business-related news items from federal agencies.
As a dynamic service -- growing and changing to meet the needs of the business community -- a new component dedicated to providing environment, safety, and health regulatory information and services fits perfectly within the framework of the U.S. Business Advisor. Such a tool would be useful to non-profit, community, and environmental groups, as well.
At one electronic location, the regulated community could identify the requirements that pertain to a given business operation, obtain assistance in interpreting those requirements, and electronically submit requisite documents as necessary. Moreover, this service would be free to the user, substantially reducing compliance costs to business. The site would foster cooperation between business and regulators. Dialogue with regulators would be enhanced and expedited, misunderstandings could be avoided, and time spent on compliance activities reduced.
Expansion of the U.S. Business Advisor to include a robust environment, safety, and health component would provide a great benefit to large and small businesses across the country, resulting in better compliance and a cleaner, safer environment. The technology necessary to construct the site already exists, the regulatory information that would reside there is available, and the need and benefits are clear. Experience shows that the vast majority of business owners would prefer to know and play by the rules. The President has called for partnerships to help those who wish to comply. For many, this could be a key tool; for some, it may be the only one.
NEED FOR CHANGE
The environment, safety, and health regulatory frameworks within which U.S. businesses must operate are complex and constantly changing. Many federal statutes protect workers, the public, and the environment. To achieve the goals and objectives in these statutes, federal agencies have promulgated hundreds of regulations that specify: reporting and recordkeeping requirements; permitting procedures; clean-up specifications; and many other mandates with which businesses must comply. In many cases, the federal regulations set a minimum national standard; each state is then free to adopt its own, more stringent, standard or to impose additional requirements. Compliance with this large body of specific requirements presents a substantial challenge to business. Furthermore, regulations are in a state of flux, with new laws and regulations being added and existing requirements undergoing expansion, revision, or revocation.
Monitoring Regulations Is Time Consuming And Costly
The federal government currently provides businesses and the public with an avenue to comment on the development of new or revised regulations in the Federal Register. Any interested party may submit concerns or offer suggestions regarding specific regulations. All comments are considered in developing the final regulations. Thus, businesses affected by these actions can have some input into the shape and direction of regulatory requirements promulgated by various agencies. However, vigilant tracking of proposed changes through the Federal Register or attendance at meetings and hearings requires time and money that most small business owners cannot spare. Many give up, make their best guess, and hope the inspectors never come around.
Understanding Regulations Requires a Substantial Investment
Besides monitoring federal and state regulations, business owners must determine which requirements apply to their company's activities, determine what compliance options are available, and then comply with the applicable requirements. The typical business owner is faced with a stack of federal regulations that stands 21 feet high and contains 140,000 pages of information.1 While it may be possible for large businesses to hire environmental and organizational safety and health specialists on their staffs, this option is not feasible for many small businesses. Not only are the salaries of such specialists high, but there also are considerable costs associated with obtaining and analyzing regulatory information by traditional means. If maintained in-house, these costs constitute a substantial investment. Therefore, the small business owner is left with the choice of hiring consultants and lawyers on an intermittent, as-needed basis or tackling the issues alone. While most small business owners wish to comply with government regulations, doing so is extremely daunting. Many simply do the best they can, and hope their best is good enough.
ACTIONS1. Build an electronic environment, safety, and health assistance resource for the Internet.
The Government Information Technology Services (GITS) Board should identify a multi-agency task force by March 1997 to design an electronic environment, safety, and health resource. The site should be linked to the U.S. Business Advisor and should consist of a framework that could expand to additional agencies and content. The site should have four categories: Assistance, Rulemaking, Advisor, and Resources.
The first category, Assistance, would allow users to download copies of the various forms used to make required reports, to obtain examples of completed forms, and to submit their reports to the appropriate federal or state government agency in electronic form.
The second category, Rulemaking, would provide users with access to information about new initiatives that are available for public comment. Two years ago, a White House task force recommended that all agencies develop the capability for conducting true electronic rulemaking. The Government Printing Office now provides electronic access to the text of proposed rules. This new rulemaking product would focus on the next step, enabling the electronic submission and posting of public comments so that citizens can engage in a dialogue about proposed initiatives.
The third category, Advisor, would constitute an on-line help system, providing one-stop access to various regulatory hot lines, expert systems such as the Asbestos Advisor, and compliance tools. Compliance tools, for example, would include the RQ.CALCULATOR, developed by the Department of Energy to assist in determining when releases of hazardous substances should be reported. Similar tools developed by other government agencies also would reside here.
The fourth category, Resources, would constitute an electronic library of existing environmental bills, laws, and regulations; current and past issues of the Federal Register; bulletin boards; and other expedited sources of regulatory information. In addition, Resources would provide interpretations and regulatory guidance, as well as information on state regulatory programs.
The site should be made available to the public by December 1997.
1Based on actual measurements by the National Performance Review, January 1995.