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Working In These Times

Wednesday, Aug 17, 2011, 7:51 am

Washington’s Anti-Regulatory Crusade, and Why Your Job Hasn’t Killed You Yet

BY Michelle Chen

On the campaign trail, Republican presidential hopeful Rick Perry is spreading the gospel of Perrynomics—a magical job-creation formula based on minimal government regulation of industry, combined with tiny tax rates and tight controls on lawsuits. In a state that seems inclined to cannibalize its own government, this agenda plays well. But a closer look reveals the high price of low regulation.

In recent months, politicians in both parties, including the White House, have claimed that scaling back regulations would unleash economic growth, suggesting that businesses should be liberated from rules that protect the environment, occupational health and other public interests. But a new analysis by Public Citizen presents a few unsung gems of federal bureaucracy that help keep us happy, healthy and sane. Several of these regulatory chart-toppers, not surprisingly, were enacted in defiance of heavy political pushback:

Clearing the Air. Since the days of the Lowell mills, so-called “brown lung” has been a hallmark of the miserable toil of poorly ventilated, dust-clogged textile factories. The disease, also known as Byssinosis, has historically hit women especially hard, spreading its signature coughing and lung scarring to thousands of workers around the world. The epidemic was virtually ignored until the 1960s and 1970s. Then came OSHA's 1978 rule requiring more lung-friendly machinery, and within a few years the prevalence of brown lung in the industry fell by an estimated 97 percent. And employers' grumbling about the "costs" of the rule faded when it became clear that the reforms improved the industry's efficiency as well.

Rule of (Keeping Your) Thumb. You'd think a rule that helps keep workers from getting accidentally hacked to pieces would be somewhat popular. But in the late 1980s, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) didn't mind sacrificing a few extremities here and there to resist the evils of regulatory "burdens." Industry moguls sued to block the Lockout/Tagout rule, which would force employers to mark potentially hazardous equipment with colored tags and provide safety training for workers. But the rule passed, and according to Public Citizen, made the shop floor a much less terrifying place:

An analysis of two union databases conducted in 2000 showed that hazardous energy-related fatalities declined, depending on the industry, by between 30 percent and 55 percent in the years following the enactment of the Lockout/Tagout rule.... OSHA currently estimates that the regulation prevents a total of 50,000 injuries and 120 fatalities per year.

Even NAM eventually backed off its opposition to the rule, apparently recognizing that workers do a better job when they have all their fingers.

Caves not Graves. OSHA issued safety standards for excavacation-related construction in 1989, designed to protect workers from subterranean collapse. Basic structural protections for trenching and excavation worksites have since become standard practice, and Public Citizen calculates that the reforms correlate with "a 40 percent decrease in the fatality rate."

Fire on the Prairie. A generation ago, America's farming industry was booming, in a really bad way. Grain facilities like silos and grain elevators were prone to deadly explosions when combustible grain dust mixed with hazardous gases. In spite of initial opposition from agribusiness groups and Reagan administration officials, OSHA enacted the Grain Handling Facilities Standard, which established environmental controls for dust and gas and required protective gear for workers. After seeing a “95 percent drop in explosion-related fatalities for certain facilities," reports Public Citizen, even industry groups eventually had to admit that workplaces that don't spontaneously explode are good for business.

Coal Quagmire. Despite major strides in workplace health and safety over the years, weak regulations and shoddy enforcement still plague various sectors. Public Citizen points to a dramatic reduction in coal mine-related deaths since Congress passed the Mine Safety and Health Act of 1969, which the group describes as “the first comprehensive mine safety law creating mandatory inspection requirements, enforceable health and safety standards, and civil and criminal penalties for willful violations.”

But although Big Coal's underground empire has become less lethal, the many workers who perished in the West Virginia Massey mine tragedy more than a year ago are a testament to the dangers that still loom over workers every day. Politician's promises to strengthen mine worker protections have faded in recent months, and Massey Energy's sordid environmental and safety record has so far not compelled decisive action to prevent future disasters.

As industrial criminality mounts, protecting workers and the public from harm remains unfinished business. Yet Rick Perry and his Beltway brethren continue to preach their anti-regulatory gospel, peddling the fable that we will somehow get more jobs if the institutions that keep us safe, can't do their jobs.

Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times, a contributor to Working In These Times, and an editor at CultureStrike. She is also a co-producer of Asia Pacific Forum on Pacifica's WBAI. Her work has appeared on Alternet, Colorlines.com, Ms., and The Nation, Newsday, and her old zine, cain. Follow her on Twitter at @meeshellchen or reach her at michellechen [at] inthesetimes [dot] com.

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