Time to Fix OSHA

Stephen Franklin

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 OSHAs 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 OSHAs 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 GAOs 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 OSHAs 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.

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