OCTOBER 1995 · VOLUME 16 · NUMBER 10
E D I T O R I A L
Approximately as many workers die each year of job-related illnesses and injuries -- 56,000 -- as died in the decade-long Vietnam war. Yet, workers sent home in body bags from the local plant don't generate the same publicity and widespread indignation as body bags from Southeast Asia.
House Republican leaders take it for granted that Lilliputian armies of federal OSHA inspectors are ensnaring the giant of U.S. business in a tangle of red tape. Legislators trying to downgrade OSHA from a regulatory enforcement agency into a consultive body invoke a litany of inane or burdensome regulations that OSHA imposes on employers. There are no shortage of anecdotes that can illustrate this point, such as the one about how OSHA requires science labs to put hazard labels on sodium chloride -- also known as salt.
But governing by anecdote is a dangerous business. It is easy to counter these anecdotes with others about workers who were killed or hospitalized at dangerous workplaces that went uninspected. A chain of explosions spilled 3,000 gallons of toxins at the Aztec Catalyst chemical plant in Elyria, Ohio in 1993, for example, sending 84 people to the hospital. In the decade leading up to the explosion, firefighters had been called to the plant 21 times but an OSHA inspector had last visited the plant in 1974.
Since anecdotes are amassed on both sides of the worker safety debate, more rigorous data are needed. Statistics suggest that -- far from being micro-managed -- even the most hazardous U.S. workplaces are woefully underregulated.
OSHA has 2,000 inspectors to patrol 6 million U.S. workplaces, or one inspector for every 3,000 work sites. Spread this thin, inspectors focus on the most dangerous employers. But OSHA visits are a rarity even in workplace trouble spots. In September 1995, the Associated Press (AP) released a computer analysis of OSHA records covering a 16-month period ending in April 1995. AP identified 4,830 workplaces that had suffered bad accidents during this period, accidents that killed 1,835 workers and seriously injured thousands more. Of these dangerous workplaces, 75 percent had not had an OSHA inspection in at least five years.
Any large bureaucracy -- be it governmental or corporate -- has its share of pointless rules, as well as well-founded rules that address serious problems and risks. By all but the most cynical calculations, 56,000 work-related deaths a year is a problem of tragic proportions, the kind of problem that another Congress established OSHA to address 25 years ago. What is wrong -- technically and morally -- with the workplace deregulation proposals now before Congress is that they make little attempt to separate lifesaving OSHA rules and practices from those that slap warning labels on glorified salt shakers.
While the trade groups pushing for workplace deregulation argue that the market and the boss will provide adequate worker protection, workers at risk of becoming OSHA statistics do not share this faith in laissez-faire or noblesse oblige. A September 1995 survey commissioned by the Bakery, Confectionery and Tobacco Workers International Union, found that 65 percent of U.S. workers say Congress should not limit OSHA's ability to enforce compliance with workplace safety standards.
Worker support for OSHA is not surprising. But it is remarkable that House zealots sometimes go too far even for their business patrons. Some members of a House that is eager to spend $493 million to maintain production of B-2 Stealth bombers that the Pentagon says it does not need turn stingy when it comes to protecting workers' lives. These members want to cut costs by merging the Mine Safety and Health Administration into OSHA. Yet, even industry leaders such as National Mining Association head Richard Lawson testified that the special risks of this industry merit the preservation of a separate mine safety agency. OSHA's total budget is $312.5 million, 63 percent of what the House recently approved to maintain B-2 assembly lines. Under H.R. 1834, OSHA's overall budget would be cut 16 percent; funds earmarked for rule enforcement would be cut 33 percent.
Although the more deliberate body of Congress is likely to weed out some of the most extreme measures in the House bill, the overall thrust is again to move the goal posts in the wrong direction, a policy that will increase workplace body counts. For this reason, Washington's other deliberative body, President Clinton, should veto any bill that weakens worker safety protections.