Taking Stock of 2004: Is the Quiet Life the Best We Can Hope for in Occupational Safety and Health?

By Minter, Stephen G. | Occupational Hazards, December 2004 | Go to article overview

Taking Stock of 2004: Is the Quiet Life the Best We Can Hope for in Occupational Safety and Health?


Minter, Stephen G., Occupational Hazards


What kind of year was 2004 for occupational safety and health? My strongest impression is that the year left little impression at all. Things were about the same. And that, of course, is the starting point for the debate on what the status quo means.

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During the presidential election, little was said about job safety. Or the environment, or a host of other issues. Safety's absence from the public dialogue is not particularly alarming. When about 5,500 people are killed on the job, usually one at a time, often out of the public view, it is not surprising that a country with 295 million people is not riveted on the issue. In a largely information- and service-based economy, much of the working population has no sense that they will be hurt or killed at work.

To some degree, that is both a sign of economic and technological change, and a sign of success in safety management. We produce products with more automation and fewer people exposed to hazards, and a lot of what we used to manufacture here is now made in China and other countries. And we have been living for more than three decades with a law, the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, that provides a safety net for workers. I would argue that when the 91st Congress passed the OSH Act, it was dealing in a fundamental way with what we more currently refer to as "family values." Few things are more destructive to a family than the loss of a father, mother, son, or daughter or breadwinner. Workers expect and deserve workplaces that protect their safety and health. Some of our safety success should be ascribed to this rather good law and to the efforts of tens of thousands of safety and health professionals over these decades to build safer workplaces day by day.

In fiscal year 2004, OSHA continued its policy of what it calls a "balanced approach" to job safety. The agency exceeded its goal of 37,000 inspections (though it actually conducted fewer inspections than the previous year) and increased the number of violations cited to 86,708. While we will not have 2004 statistics for several months, the agency in September released fatality data for 2003 that showed a slight increase in fatalities, to 5,559.

Along with enforcement, OSHA Administrator John Henshaw and his staff have focused much of their attention on compliance assistance and voluntary safety efforts. In the summer, OSHA announced that it was separating its enforcement and compliance assistance offices. Compliance assistance was moved to a newly named Directorate of Cooperative and State Programs. …

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Taking Stock of 2004: Is the Quiet Life the Best We Can Hope for in Occupational Safety and Health?
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