Among the Bush administration’s many gifts to employers, a big one was letting companies with so-called exemplary health and safety records skip routine inspections.
It wasn’t a new program. But the Bush administration markedly expanded it so that by 2008 over 2,000 workplace sites got the benefit of not having to fret about pesky check-ups by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
There was a problem, however. Some model companies weren’t so perfect. Workers had died on the job at these companies, but on OSHA’s books they were still considered ideal workplaces.
After examining the situation at 30 of the supposedly exemplary work sites where workplace deaths had occurred, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported recently yet more heartbreaking findings about OSHA’s failure to protect workers.
There was no indication the agency had taken any action against the companies. Some places had also racked up violations, and one had seven serious workplace violations. The problem also wasn’t a new one for OSHA. The GAO had worried about the program in 2004, but apparently OSHA had done diddly to heed the GAO’s worries.
Consider this as one small reminder of why it is so important for the Obama administration to heal OSHA. As the New York Times editorialized recently, the agency has killed dozens of existing and proposed regulations and endlessly delayed others.
In some cases, the agency’s failure to act also hasn’t been the result of its pandering to the business community. It’s simply been the victim of its inertia in dealing with problems that have troubled both organized labor and the business community.
That is also why the administration’s nomination of David Micheals to head OSHA is so important. He is an epidemiologist and professor at George Washington University’s School of Public Health and Health Services, who has loudly complained about OSHA’s failure as well as the success of businesses in thwarting needed protections for workers.
He wrote in June 2005 that:
Industry groups have tried to manipulate science no matter which political party controls the government, but the efforts have grown more brazen since George W. Bush became
president. I believe it is fair to say that never in our history have corporate interests been as successful as they are today in shaping science policies to their desires.
Some changes must wait their turn in Washington. But fixing OSHA is one that can’t. Not when you consider estimates that 15 workers are killed daily on the job, and every four minutes another worker suffers a significant job-related injury.
Stephen Franklin is a former labor and workplace reporter for the Chicago Tribune, was until recently the ethnic media project director with Public Narrative in Chicago. He is the author of Three Strikes: Labor’s Heartland Losses and What They Mean for Working Americans (2002), and has reported throughout the United States and the Middle East.