The Uphill Struggle for Workplace Health

By Wilkie, Dana | State Legislatures, June 1997 | Go to article overview

The Uphill Struggle for Workplace Health


Wilkie, Dana, State Legislatures


As Congress changes OSHA's direction, states are taking charge of protecting workers' health and safety.

Today's typical Americans - busy and health conscious - demand that their local grocery store be well stocked with lean, easy-to-cook meat. As a result, the number of poultry processors in this country has almost doubled since 1980, while workers now clean and gut chickens - a numbingly repetitive task - at nearly twice the pace they once did.

Repetitive-stress injuries - flaring pain in the fingers and wrist - are now a near epidemic on the chicken assembly line.

Congress, however, barred the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) last year from creating rules designed to prevent such injuries, even though they account for one of every three workers' compensation dollars, for $2.7 million a year in workers' compensation claims and for an annual $20 billion in costs to employers.

This April, California was expected to become the first state in the country to adopt regulations requiring businesses to reduce these injuries. The so-called "ergonomics standard" involved much toil and debate, but it demonstrates how the states - in the absence of federal laws or guidelines - have taken charge of protecting workers' health and safety. States are tackling everything from ergonomics to on-the-job violence, from getting tobacco out. of the office to encouraging workers to eat better, exercise more, drink less and unwind oftener.

WHY OSHA HAS FAILED

There are some safety and health professionals who say the role of aggressively protecting the nation's workers can best be filled by the federal government. David Hunnicutt, president of the Wellness Councils of America, a nonprofit organization of 3,000 companies trying to encourage healthy workers, says the move to improve working conditions has come a remarkable distance in a very, very short time. "I think the federal government has played a tremendous role in assisting American work sites."

But recent budgetary pressures on OSHA, it can be argued, have left the agency far less effective than it once was. Concerned that the agency was choking businesses with too many laws and fines, Congress cut its budget from $312 million in FY 1995 to $304 million in FY 1996. And while the agency is now recovering with a FY 1997 budget of $326 million, supporters say the $8 million loss was critical to the agency's already small budget.

Since 1994, OSHA has had an 8 percent drop in staff. Inspections have fallen 43 percent and serious citations 64 percent, a development that came about not just because of budget cuts, but because of a push to help businesses correct workplace hazards before fining them. Nearly one-third fewer American workers are now covered by the agency's inspections and other actions, leading critics to call the agency a "toothless tiger" that is moving, in the words of the Chicago Tribune, "from beat cop to social worker."

OSHA spokeswoman Susan Fleming says her agency does the best it can with the resources it has. "We have a tiny budget and a huge mission," she says. "We didn't hire anyone when anybody left and didn't do any inspections," she said. "We sort of held the line."

Congress continues this year to steer OSHA away from rulemaking and enforcement toward collaborating with businesses to help them comply with federal requirements.

Joseph Kinney, a founder of the National Workplace Safety Institute, notes that while the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has blossomed in its staffing levels and budget since being created, OSHA has fared less well - largely, he believes, because the environmental protection movement gained popular support that the workplace safety movement hasn't. In addition, research money from private foundations also tends to go, Kinney says, to the issues that make the evening news.

"We can get funding out the wazoo to deal with the maquiladoras on the Mexican border, but never any serious funding to look at [domestic] work practices," says Kinney, noting that his institute operates on $150,000 a year, has only three staffers and no longer promotes legislation as it did just a few years ago. …

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