Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Does OSHA Measure Up? It Is Difficult to Find a Balanced Scorecard for the Nation's Workplace Safety and Health Guardian

Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Does OSHA Measure Up? It Is Difficult to Find a Balanced Scorecard for the Nation's Workplace Safety and Health Guardian

Article excerpt

OSHA is slated to receive $460 million in fiscal 2004. When I see figures like almost a half billion dollars, I start to wonder what we are getting for our money. Asking how well OSHA is doing, however, can be akin to chain smoking in a gasoline storage facility.

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In this month's "OSHA" column, you'll see that OSHA had the Gallup Organization poll employers and employees about their experiences with the agency. OSHA did very well on these "customer satisfaction" issues. For example, more than 90 percent rated OSHA's compliance assistance as useful in improving workplace safety and health. But in reviewing the New York Times series on OSHA's lack of criminal prosecutions in cases involving the death of workers, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D, N.J.) said it represented an "astounding record of failure" and chastised OSHA for "gross negligence to perform its most basic duties of holding companies accountable for their failure to protect their employees...."

OSHA got off to a poor start in the 1970s and it has never really recovered. As its battles over the carcinogen policy, PELs and ergonomics have shown, the larger the agency's aspirations, the more vehement the opposition. Moreover, the courts have slowly nibbled away at OSHA's autonomy and flexibility.

Standards-setting is at the center of the ideological conflict over OSHA. Business groups that see government regulation as a threat to economic growth and jobs have gone years without being able to work up any enthusiasm for a major OSHA proposal. Meanwhile, labor advocates view the lack of rulemaking as the victory of special interests over the protection of the safety and health of working Americans.

OSHA Administrator John Henshaw has scaled back the agency's rulemaking agenda, stating quite correctly that publishing "'wish lists' of regulatory actions that never get accomplished harms the agency's credibility in the eyes of both employers and employees." So OSHA's proposal to issue a standard for glycol ethers, for example, is dropped after 11 years because production and use of the substances has faded. What about exposures during those 11 years? If it was our sons or daughters employed in those facilities, would we be content to let the market deal with the problem? Is OSHA's credibility enhanced by its inability to ensure that hazards are promptly removed from the workplace?

The rhetoric over this debate has already begun to intensify under the magnifying glass of an election year. Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts boasts of his work to "beat back Republican efforts to gut OSHA, weaken worker safety rules and cut funds from worker training and employment programs. …

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