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July 28, 2014

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Sun editorial:

A life-and-death issue for the nation’s workers

Congress should focus on human cost, not the false arguments in worker safety debate

By the Labor Department’s count, on average, 15 people are killed each day on the job and about 11,000 suffer occupational illnesses or injuries.

Labor Department officials and business interests crow about the numbers because, they say, the numbers are declining.

Many economists and safety experts question that claim, noting that the government fails to count millions of injuries every year.

Regardless, just taking the official numbers, can it really be a success that more than 5,400 people are killed every year on the job and more than 4 million are injured?

For years safety advocates and labor unions have complained about the failure of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and for years little has been done about it.

“It’s not like somebody is opposed to protecting workers on the job,” says Joseph Dear, who ran OSHA in the early 1990s. “It’s ‘How do you do that?’ ”

That question has largely stalled Congress because of the polarized factions in the debate. There has been little common ground between business interests, which have worked against government regulation and enforcement, and union and health advocates, who want to see government take an active role protecting workers.

As a result of the tension, OSHA has become a bureaucratic quagmire, where regulations take a decade or more to make and where priorities consistently shift.

As well intended as the attempts to correct the problem have been, they have been barely incremental, in deference to the political volatility over worker safety.

In the latest effort to improve OSHA, Democrats have introduced a bill in the past two sessions of Congress called the Protecting America’s Workers Act. The bill has been hailed as a good step toward improving worker safety because it would raise fines and stiffen penalties. That is certainly needed, but the bill fails to address the systemic problems of OSHA that have kept the agency from truly protecting workers. Congress should be working toward a complete overhaul of the agency to better protect the working public. There are several areas Congress should address:

• Budget: OSHA has never had an adequate budget to handle its task of setting health and safety standards, much less to enforce them. Congress should make a financial commitment to the agency, whose budget hasn’t kept up with the rate of inflation, to give OSHA the money it needs.

• Regulation: Decades of adverse court decisions and political changes have left the agency hobbled. It takes years and millions of dollars to set a basic safety or health standard. Any new law should peel back the regulatory hurdles, give the agency clear guidance and allow it to reasonably set necessary standards to protect workers.

• State OSHA: Under the current law, states are allowed to have their own agencies, outside of federal purview, as long as they uphold federal OSHA’s minimal standards. That provision is predicated on the hope that state agencies can be more innovative and responsive in dealing with local industries. But of the 24 states, including Nevada, that have their own agencies, only California and Washington are said to come close to the ideal. The rest have been pale imitations of what was supposed to be. State legislatures pay little attention to them, either in providing oversight or money to supplement their federal funding. And federal funding for state programs hasn’t kept up with the rate of inflation. Congress should either find a way to provide oversight and additional money or end the state programs.

• Philosophy: OSHA’s enforcement role has been under fire since the agency came to life in 1971. Safety advocates want a watchdog; business interests want a toothless watchdog. Business groups have advocated the agency’s “voluntary partnership” programs, which give companies protection from most fines and citations. Studies of the partnership programs have shown that they don’t succeed without strong enforcement efforts. OSHA has to provide a deterrent, but its only weapons now are meager penalties and fines. Inspectors should have the power to shut down a dangerous work site, and the agency’s penalties should be dramatically increased — including making criminal those willful violations of safety laws that result in injury.

• Standards: The agency has failed to set regulations for hundreds of toxins, hazards and other dangers because it does not have the staff or the budget to do the job. As a result, tens of thousands of people are sickened every year after being exposed to hazardous chemicals and toxins. OSHA both makes the rules and enforces them, and those dual duties have split the agency and its focus. Congress should turn standard-setting over to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which develops information on handling of toxic substances and issues recommendations on health and safety standards.

• Statistics: It is well accepted by leading economists and experts that the federal government’s statistics for injuries and illnesses are grossly underreported. The Labor Department’s system of collecting numbers fails to count millions of injuries each year and some experts say the number of occupation injuries could be as high as 13 million annually. With all of those injuries, it looks as if OSHA is doing much better than it really is. Congress should mandate a full accounting of the numbers.

Overall, the health and safety system is inadequate, and it will take a huge political effort to make the necessary changes.

Over the past eight years, the Bush administration’s policies have been wildly biased toward business interests at the expense of workers’ health and safety.

Congress should see that the cost of such policies has been too great in any way it can be measured — human life, pain and suffering, and the economic drain on taxpayers and businesses.

The Obama administration and the Democratic Congress will need to stand firm against business interests, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, that have fought worker safety laws and falsely say the cost of safety programs hurts businesses and the economy. Good health and safety programs actually save money for businesses and taxpayers.

The real measurement of a health and safety program, however, is not in dollars and cents. As Joseph Dear, the former head of OSHA, puts it:

“A success in health and safety means nothing happens. A mother or father goes home. That’s so good.”

Indeed. And that’s what lawmakers should focus on: helping more mothers and fathers go home unharmed.

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