Magazine article The American Prospect

Hidden Injuries of Class: Undermining OSHA by a Thousand Cuts. (below the Beltway)

Magazine article The American Prospect

Hidden Injuries of Class: Undermining OSHA by a Thousand Cuts. (below the Beltway)

Article excerpt

TAKE A GOOD DOSE OF FREE-MARKET ideology, mix in political debts to your

business backers and an overriding concern with re-election, and voila: You have the recipe for George W. Bush's domestic policies. The imperative of re-election has taken precedence over Bush's conservative convictions on some occasions, leading him to adopt policies like the tariffs on steel that have annoyed some of his business backers. But this doesn't happen often and hardly at all on complicated issues that don't receive widespread attention from the national media. Such has certainly been the case with many regulatory (or deregulatory) decisions by the Federal Communications Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). But nowhere has it been more apparent than in Bush's approach to worker health and safety.

This issue is the all-time unsexy news story. It only gets attention when a mine explodes or a postal employee goes berserk. Yet it's of vital interest to just about every blue-collar worker--and to white-collar workers who have to perform repetitive physical tasks or who work in poorly ventilated or excessively noisy offices. And it's an issue where government regulation has made a difference. During the 1970s and the late 1990s, when the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was adequately funded, it had a dramatic effect on the incidence of job injuries. Between 1995 and 2000, for instance, the number of injuries and illnesses dropped to 6.1 from 8.1 for every 100 workers.

But companies heartily dislike OSHA because it often costs them real money to improve working conditions. They don't want existing regulations rigorously enforced and they don't want any new ones created, which last happened in November 2000 when the Clinton administration issued new rules governing musculoskeletal "ergonomic" injuries. During the last election cycle, companies such as United Parcel Service, FedEx, and Anheuser-Busch gave Republicans millions of dollars to tame OSHA and to fight any such new regulations.

And Bush and the Republicans in Congress have delivered. The president adopted the classic conservative strategy for undermining agencies that regulate business: Underfund them, and when that doesn't work, replace government regulation with Herbert Hoover-style business self-regulation. As governor of Texas, Bush did just that with the state's clean-air laws; as president, he has followed the same strategy toward environmental- and worker-safety regulations.

CONSERVATIVES HAVE ALWAYS understood that even the strictest labor laws or environmental regulations don't matter if the government doesn't enforce them. Their first line of attack against agencies such as the OSHA or the EPA has been to cut their budgets in ways that force them to lay off the employees who would do the enforcing. In the Reagan years, Republicans used budget cuts to reduce OSHA's staff to 2,211 in 1987 from 2,951 in 1980. In 1995-1996, the Republican Congress moved against OSHA, reducing its staff to 2,069; but in Bill Clinton's second term the agency's budget began to rise and OSHA began to increase its enforcement staff. By 2001 there were 2,370 workers at the agency.

Bush has tried to start the ball rolling downward again. In his first budget, he proposed a cut in OSHA funding. But Congress, led by the Democratic Senate, was able to raise funding slightly but not enough to preserve 54 jobs. For fiscal year 2003, the Bush administration has once again proposed a drop in OSHA funding and the elimination of 83 positions, 64 of them in enforcement. It's also taking a whack at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the other agency set up by the 1970 Occupational Safety and Health Act. NIOSH is one of 11 health-research agencies funded through the Health and Human Services Department. While the administration has proposed sharp spending increases in 10 of the 11 agencies (including the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and the National Cancer Institute), it has proposed a 10. …

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