Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Gore's Carrot and OSHA's Stick

Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Gore's Carrot and OSHA's Stick

Article excerpt

Question: How do you reach 93 million workers at 6.2 million worksites with 2,400 safety and health inspectors?

Answer: You don't.

Having recognized the essential mathematics of OSHA enforcement, the White House task force on "reinventing government" chaired by Vice President Al Gore declared in its September 7 report that the present OSHA system "doesn't work well enough." In fiscal year 1994, federal and state OSHA will conduct just over 100,000 inspections of American workplaces. Based on the agency's past track record, more than 40 percent of its inspections will fail to uncover any serious or willful violations.

Though the agency's leaders seem loathe to admit it publicly, OSHA does not have the resources to fulfill its statutory mandate to assure every American worker "safe and healthful working conditions." In reality, OSHA can reach only a tiny percentage of workplaces annually.

Occupational safety has improved in the 22 years since OSHA began operating, but more needs to be done. Approximately 10,000 deaths and 1.7 million disabling injuries occur each year, a trail of human misery that should be impossible to ignore. According to the National Safety Council, workplace injuries and deaths cost American businesses over $63 billion annually.

Would more resources make OSHA an effective enforcement agency? Former acting OSHA chief Frank White, an attorney with McDermott, Will & Emery, called the disparity in funding between OSHA ($290 million) and EPA ($6.9 billion) "unjustifiable, if not verging on the unconscionable." Said one OSHA official: "We don't need to reinvent government, we need to fund the government we've got." But Congress shows little interest in hiking OSHA's budget substantially, and no one really believes that we can inspect our way to safety utopia.

How do we improve workplace safety then? Organized labor has a two-fold answer. First, place more responsibilities on employers through mandatory requirements for safety and health programs, broad new standards in areas such as ergonomics and exposure monitoring, and joint labor-management safety and health committees. Second, make the consequences for safety and health failures a good deal more onerous. Increase civil fines, broaden criminal sanctions, and require prompt abatement of even contested citations.

The business community sees many of these initiatives as costly attempts to go after the bad actors at the expense of honest, safe employers operating in a highly competitive world. …

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