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September 2, 2014

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Sun editorial:

Worker safety eroded during the Bush years

Bush administration has stripped workers of basic protections and slowed OSHA

After President George W. Bush took office, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration quickly felt the effects of the administration’s anti-government bent.

In its first two years, the Bush administration pulled 22 items off the agency’s regulatory agenda, its working list of proposed safety and health rules.

The administration cut several proposals that would have increased safety in the construction industry, which is a concern in Las Vegas. During boom times, more than 10 percent of the Las Vegas workforce has been employed in construction.

After Bush took office, OSHA ended work on plans that would have increased protection for workers on scaffolding, as well as a requirement that would have added protection for workers on residential construction projects. The agency also shelved a mandate to make construction companies participate in safety programs designed “to reduce the incidence of occupational deaths, injuries, and illnesses.”

In pulling the items, the administration cited “resource constraints and other priorities.”

The Bush administration’s only real priority has been to prevent the agency from doing its job. It has stopped OSHA from updating old regulations or writing new ones, changed rules already on the books and gutted the agency’s budget. In doing so, the administration has left workers in jeopardy of injury and death.

For example, for years the danger of dust and fumes from the metal beryllium has been well known, but in 2001 the administration backed off a plan to update OSHA’s standard, which was based on the back-seat calculations of two government scientists riding in a taxicab in 1948.

The dust and fumes created in the production of beryllium components typically used by the aerospace and defense industries can cause an incurable, debilitating lung disease if inhaled in even the smallest amount.

Ignoring clear scientific evidence that OSHA’s standard allows workers to be exposed to dangerous levels, the Bush administration said it needed “a substantial amount of information” before it could proceed.

But that is, sadly, nothing new for the Bush administration, which has had to be dragged to court before issuing standards. OSHA has issued only four major health and safety standards under President Bush. Two of those originated with the Clinton administration and another came in response to a court order. No other presidential administration, including Gerald Ford’s abbreviated term, has issued fewer standards.

Instead, the Bush administration has been an obstacle to worker safety. It recently tried to enact a rule that would make it even more difficult for OSHA to pass regulations. And the administration has worked to undo existing health and safety requirements, most notably in the construction industry.

In 2002 the agency issued a memo to inspectors explaining how to enforce an updated standard that mandated that workers at heights above 30 feet wear and attach a harness and have a floor or safety net below them. The directive, though, told inspectors that either safeguard was sufficient, in apparent deference to construction companies that complained about the time and cost of laying even a temporary floor below workers.

That directive was followed by Nevada OSHA, a state agency that enforces safety and health standards here.

Two of the 12 workers who died in a rash of accidents on the Las Vegas Strip in 19 months fell to their deaths from higher than 30 feet and could have been saved by a floor or a safety net.

Before he resigned this fall, federal OSHA administrator Edwin Foulke defended the agency’s directive, telling a congressional committee the standard was “redundant.” Since the directive was issued, the national ironworkers union has seen an increase in the number of fatal falls. In 2004, when the directive had been fully circulated, nearly half of the structural steel workers who died on the job in 2004 fell to their deaths. According to the Labor Department, falls accounted for 70 percent of structural steel workers’ deaths last year.

Of course, regulation is no good without strong enforcement, and the Bush administration has made sure there is neither. The agency doesn’t have the resources to come within a shadow of its lofty mission, as stated in law, to “assure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women.”

In 1975 federal OSHA was responsible for overseeing safety in nearly 4 million workplaces that employed nearly 68 million workers. The agency had a budget of $102 million (roughly $411 million in today’s dollars) and 2,435 full-time positions, or one OSHA employee for every 1,621 workplaces.

In 2006 the agency’s workload had grown to nearly 8.8 million workplaces that employed nearly 134 million people. Yet its $472 million budget had 2,165 full-time positions, or one OSHA employee per 4,057 workplaces.

Under the Bush administration, the agency’s staff has been cut by 10 percent and its budget hasn’t kept up with inflation.

The bottom line is that the current administration has left millions of working families in jeopardy of suffering a workplace tragedy. The next administration and Congress must act forcefully to change that, realizing that the working men and women of this nation are in harm’s way.

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