OSHA's Trivial Pursuit

Article excerpt

It was a horrible tragedy, as much for the mental images it generated as for the death toll. On September 3, 1991, at around 8 a.m., a fire broke out at a chicken plant in Hamlet, North Carolina. As the grease fire started on a chicken fryer and spread quickly inside the Imperial Foods Products building, workers tried desperately to escape the smoke and flames, clawing at locked exit doors in panic. Twenty-five Imperial employees didn't make it. Fifty-six more were injured in the blaze. The event made national headlines and attracted everyone from network news reporters to Jesse Jackson, who visited in an attempt to link the chicken- plant tragedy to the national civil-rights movement. "I see the same faces here that I saw in Memphis, Tennessee, with Dr. [Martin Luther] King," he said. "Just basic, humble people who want to work and get a fair day's wages for a fair day's work."

Furious voices denounced state and federal safety inspectors, as well as the state's business community. During 1992 and 1993, the Hamlet fire became the cause celebre of politicians and activists seeking tougher workplace-safety laws in Congress, including a greatly expanded Occupational Safety and Health Administration and new mandates on businesses. As Hamlet became a national symbol for corporate irresponsibility in workplace safety, one small but significant detail escaped the notice of many in Congress and the media. Those exit doors that sealed the deathtrap had been ordered closed and locked by the federal government.

The problem with the Imperial plant, a U.S. Department of Agriculture poultry inspector had said the previous June, was flies. "Both doors at the [trash] compactor was [sic] open when I arrived at 8:45 p.m.," the inspector wrote in a deficiency report. "Several flies [were] observed in all areas of the plant." Imperial's response, also written into the deficiency report, was to promise that the outside doors "will be kept locked." The inspector verified that corrective action had taken place.

Imperial Foods was hardly blameless in the tragedy -- various safety problems existed at the time of the fire -- but heavy-handed government regulation was also partly responsible. The chicken plant was one of the few employers in a poor, rural community. It ran on a very thin margin, using an old building and struggling every week to keep production going. Installing state-of-the-art alarm doors at the side and rear of the plant was an expensive proposition. When forced by federal edict to make a tradeoff between food quality and worker safety, plant managers chose the former, with disastrous results.

Fast forward to 1995. A new Republican majority in Congress, intent on balancing the federal budget, has targeted the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for cuts. In an attempt to defend OSHA, the Clinton administration announced a plan in May to make compliance less onerous to business and to judge safety inspectors on the basis of safety records for companies they oversee, not on the number of citations by write. "This is the new face of OSHA," said Elaine Kamarck, senior policy advisor for Vice President Gore and director of his "reinventing government" initiative.

But a Congress committed not only to budget savings but also to sound policymaking should go far beyond redesigning OSHA's inspection program or, as some GOP lawmakers have suggested, simply cutting its budget in half. There is no need for the federal government to inspect American workplaces, issue regulations, and fine employers for violating federal safety rules, and the attempt to do so has accomplished virtually nothing for American workers except burden their employers with regulations.

A 1991 study by Wayne B. Gray of the National Bureau of Economic Research found that OSHA regulations have "significantly reduced productivity growth in the U.S.," even more than those from the Environmental Protection Agency. Some OSHA standards have put a search for completely risk-free workplaces above common sense. …