Another War of Jenkins' Ear

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Happy Birthday OSHA!!!

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As I sat down for the night, I put C-SPAN on to find a panel from the Center for American Progress earlier today celebrating the 40th anniversary of OSHA. A quick Google news search showed that the only people covering this anniversary were, in fact, CAP itself and the AFL-CIO who had a representative on the panel. It did not even merit a press release from the Department of Labor! There is a OSHA at 40 page… located at the OSHA website. Most of what I’ve found here I found through twitter, not surprisingly.

So what is OSHA? It’s the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, signed into existence by the safest President of them all, Richard Nixon.

Basically, what OSHA does is ensure a safe workplace for everyone. I found these rebuttals of common complaints about OHSA salient. Here’s an excerpt:

3. Speaking of PPE, we never had that junk when I was in the field, and we did just fine.Did I just hear, “We’ve always done it that way?” Or maybe it was, “Real men don’t need that crap.” Think about this: Prior to 1970, there were about half as many workers in the United States as there are today, and there were 14,300 job-related deaths. Today, with a workforce more than twice as large, fewer than 5,000 workers are killed on the job in a year. Comparing relative rates (1970 vs 2008) there are about 82 percent fewer fatalities now than in 1970. That sounds pretty good, unless you consider that 5,214 workers were given capital punishment for the crime of going to work. Doesn’t sound so good, does it? Maybe the good old days weren’t so good.

4. OSHA writes citations that cost me money. How am I supposed to stay in business?Short answer: Maybe you shouldn’t be in business if you can’t protect your workers.

I’d really recommend the entire (short) article.

One last point: amidst all the talk about collective bargaining regarding wages (which is really important) collective bargaining also serves an important function in regards to safety standards. Unions are a major institution advocating for the safety of workers. Without their power and ability to mobilize, literally 6 or 7 thousand people a year would probably be dead because of their line of work.

Moreover, cutting OSHA is a dumb idea. It’s already underfunded. This is something the left should (and is) fighting for. There’s no business where it makes sense over any period of time to take serious safety risks in return for higher profit margins. None. OSHA is something that literally pays for itself, and is fundamental to what America is as a country: not letting people die on the job when simple inspections could prevent it.

We’ve seen attacks on OSHA before. The result? They’re nonsense:

OSHA has been particularly effective when regulating some of our most dangerous industries, which hasn’t stopped the affected employers from vigorously challenging the agency at every turn. Following a series of explosions in grain elevators in December 1977, which caused the deaths of 59 workers, OSHA began the process of developing a grain handling facilities standard that took a decade to put into effect. At the time industry was bitterly opposed. Yet, the National Grain and Feed Association (NGFA), a persistent critic of OSHA, acknowledged in 1998 that the industry had seen “an unprecedented decline in explosions, injuries and fatalities at grain handling facilities.” In 2006, a review by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board reported a 42 percent decline in grain explosions, 60 percent decline in injuries, and a 70 percent decline in fatal accidents. (There are still recalcitrant employers who do not follow OSHA’s guidelines, leading to tragedies like the deaths of Pacas and Whitebread.) Similarly, the passage of the Cotton Dust standard in 1978 lowered rates of “brown lung” among textile workers throughout the country from approximately 12 percent to about 1 percent of all employees.

Despite these successes, business lobby groups and their allies in Congress have hamstrung OSHA’s effectiveness by thwarting tougher standards, restricting its budget, and limiting the number of inspectors. Today, state and federal OSHA agencies combined only have 2, 218 inspectors, and in every state the number of OSHA inspectors fails to meet the benchmark set by the International Labour Organization for the appropriate ratio of safety inspectors to employees.

This year’s headline catching accidents at Upper Big Branch and Deepwater Horizon, and many of the less known tragedies like the deaths of two teenagers in Mount Carroll, were avoidable with stronger laws and more vigorous enforcement. Industry groups have used their significant resources to escape their responsibilities. Now, the US Chamber of Commerce and congressional Republicans are stepping up their attacks on OSHA, recycling many of the same arguments they used 40 years ago. While they claim stronger workplace protections are “job killers,” the unfortunate reality is that it is American workers who are dying every day.

This is what the administrative state does: it slowly but inevitably makes society work better through a responsive, though slow, process. OHSA is just one example of that.

Sadly, that seems the road the right wants to take us on: where John Galt gives some crumbs, and if people die chasing them off a cliff, so be it. The moral repugnance of that cannot be overstated.

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