OCTOBER 1995 · VOLUME 16 · NUMBER 10
U N D E R C U T T I N G W O R K E R S A F E T Y
In January 1995, as the new Republican majority settled into Washington, the National Association of Manufacturers convened a meeting of the Coalition on Occupational Safety and Health (COSH). Attending the lobby meeting were representatives of the oil, chemicals, steel and construction industries, as well as small business people. The coalition set their sights on OSHA, drafting a laundry list of gripes.
Time was ripe in the new Congress to have their concerns heard. Many of the new Republicans have run small- or medium-sized businesses and are sympathetic to complaints about the OSHA regulatory burden. Majority leader Richard K. Armey, R-Texas, and House Republican Conference Chair John A. Boehner, a former plastics salesperson, were outspoken OSHA critics as members of the House Education and Labor Committee. Cass Ballenger, R-North Carolina, who was the head of a plastic packaging firm, is now the chair of the workforce protection subcommittee.
Ballenger incorporated virtually everything on COSH's OSHA wish list into the Safety and Health Improvement and Regulatory Reform Act of 1995. His subcommittee expects to approve the bill in October 1995. Ballenger would like the bill to be submitted to a full House vote this year, but it is unclear whether that timetable will be met, according to a legislative aide in his office.
"OSHA's mission has become misdirected into simply finding violations of regulations and issuing penalties," says Ballenger. "We believe that a more effective workplace safety and health program would rely primarily on non-enforcement efforts."
Under the Ballenger bill, half of OSHA's budget would be earmarked for consultation, training and education programs and many businesses would be exempt from random inspections. Apart from such provisions that promote across-the-board deregulation, the bill contains special favors for certain industries. The chemicals industry, for example, would achieve its objective of preventing state regulators from exceeding federal OSHA standards. The steel industry, for its part, would be freed of the requirement that employers keep records on work-related illnesses that do not require medical treatment. OSHA uses these records to identify which industries it should target for inspections.
Ironically, a mantra of the Republican deregulatory push is that regulators need to precisely target regulatory efforts rather than trying to regulate across the entire map. This gap between Republican policy and rhetoric has not been lost on OSHA. "This legislation makes no distinction between employers who place a high priority on safety and health in the workplace and those who treat their workers as expendable," warns Assistant Labor Secretary Joseph Dear, who heads OSHA.
Although Ballenger's bill contains special goodies for the chemical and steel industries, arguably the bill's biggest beneficiary would be the mining industry. Ballenger's bill would dismantle much of the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), an agency that has helped bring about a seven-fold drop in mining fatalities since 1968 (see story, page 13). "America's mines are safer than ever, precisely because we have a strong, independent agency that takes seriously its mission of protecting miners' safety," says United Mineworkers of America President Richard Trumka. "This bill would roll back more than two decades of progress and turn America's coal fields into killing fields."
OSHA's ability to develop and enforce workplace standards has been the key to worker safety improvements, says Dear. These are the very standards that Republican lawmakers want to roll back.
A good example is OSHA's draft ergonomic standards. These standards, one of the agency's most ambitious worker safety initiatives in recent years, were designed to reduce cumulative trauma disorders (CTDs). CTDs are injuries that are caused by repetitive job activities such as typing, assembly-line work and the frequent use of vibrating or impact tools. Specific types of CTDs include carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis and lower back pain.
CTDs accounted for 60 percent of all worker occupational injuries in 1991, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and one-third of workers' compensation claims in 1988. There were 302,000 work-related CTD cases reported in 1993. These CTD workers' compensation claims cost $10 billion in that year. The economic and health costs of CTDs are staggering in some industries. In the auto industry, 8 percent of all workers are afflicted with these injuries, while 13 percent of meatpackers suffer some kind of CTD.
Keith Mestrich of the AFL-CIO's Department of Occupational Safety and Health, calls CTDs an "epidemic problem in the workplace." The Bureau of Labor Statistics says the number of new cases has risen 770 percent in the last 10 years.
Lewis Wallace, a former news writer at The Daily Review in Hayward, California, developed carpal tunnel syndrome in the late 1980s. Two years after his doctor took him off keyboard work in 1991, Wallace was told that he will probably never be able to type without pain again. Carpal tunnel syndrome is a common CTD that accounted for 41,000 reported work injuries in 1993.
"After about a year of obituary writing and crime reporting, I began feeling pain, tingling and numbness in my hands, wrists and fingers," Wallace says. He says he is angry at his former employer for failing to implement safeguards to prevent his injury. "In just one example of the newspaper's hostility toward workers suffering from CTD, my physical therapist was hustled out of The Daily Review newsroom -- even after having been cleared by my direct supervisor to conduct a worksite evaluation -- by an upper-level editor who apparently didn't want the company's equipment and working conditions inspected," he says.
Terry Winkler, The Daily Review editor, blames the incident on "personality more than anything." He says the issue had more to do with "control of the newsroom setting" than hostility to the idea of an inspection. Wallace is learning to use a voice-activated computer, which should allow him to resume his profession.
In 1990, 35 unions petitioned OSHA to issue emergency temporary ergonomic standards to curb workplace repetitive stress injuries. Ergonomics seeks to adjust work conditions to workers' physical needs to reduce the stresses that cause these CTDs. Ergonomics can prevent and relieve CTDs by redesigning tools, adjusting work stations, rotating job tasks and through exercise programs.
In 1990, OSHA issued guidelines for the meatpacking industry and began work on an all-industry standard using the meatpacking rules as a guide. Having received comments on an initial draft in September 1994, OSHA issued a revised draft in March 1995.
Rulemaking and breaking
The Bush Administration drafted a preliminary proposal for new OSHA ergonomics guidelines in 1992 under Dorothy Strunk, then-acting OSHA head. Strunk, after acting as legal counsel for various mining companies, has now been hired by United Parcel Service (UPS) to fight the proposed standards that she helped draft. UPS spokesperson Bob Kenney says Strunk's "experience in health and safety is certainly a reason we brought [her] in."
UPS was the nation's top political action committee contributor in the 1994 election cycle, giving more than $2.6 million, most of which went to Republicans. The company is one of the five largest employers in the United States, with offices in every congressional district. It is also the nation's leading violator of OSHA standards. Since 1972, UPS has been cited for 2,786 OSHA violations and has paid $4.6 million in fines, receiving more worker complaints than any other company. UPS spends $1 million a day on workers' compensation.
These numbers "seem sensational," Kenney says, "but if you take into consideration the physical nature of the industry, the number or size of complaints is not out of line with the industry."
Strunk sits on the National Association of Manufacturers' Coalition on Ergonomics, which aims to raise $600,000 to fight the standards. Spokesperson Al Lundeen says the Coalition is a "watchdog group" that opposes the standards because they are "not based on sound science."
The manufacturers have a receptive ear in Congress. During hearings on the draft ergonomics standards held in June 1995 by the House Subcommittee on National Economic Growth, Natural Resources and Regulatory Affairs, Representative David McIntosh, R-Indiana, derided OSHA for seeking to inflict yet another "regulatory burden" on U.S. employers. Citing nothing more than anecdotal evidence, McIntosh said that, while top OSHA directors might have worthy intentions, OSHA inspectors "on the ground" are too often over-zealous in enforcing the rules.
OSHA head Joseph Dear defended the draft standards before the subcommittee, saying that they are based on "the actual experience of workers on the job" and insisting that application and enforcement of the standards would be targeted to the occupations that pose the greatest CTD risk. Dear also testified that employers who have improved workplace ergonomics in response to OSHA citations have improved their productivity and reduced workers' compensation costs. Marietta Lockheed, Cargill and Chrysler are some of the larger corporations that have realized the bottom-line benefits of using ergonomic design to reduce CTD injuries.
Despite Republican rhetoric about workplace regulations having a disproportionately negative impact on small- and medium-sized businesses, smaller firms can also benefit from ergonomic design. Tokai Rika, a 770-employee electronic switch company based in Battle Creek, Michigan, introduced an ergonomics program in December 1990. The companydiagnosed hazards that could cause CTDs, adopted measures to prevent or control these hazards, arranged medical supervision to detect and treat CTDs early on, and trained workers to protect themselves. The company credits the program with reducing the cost of overall injuries from almost $600,000 when the program began, to $83,000 by 1995.
"The cost is so minute for these modifications," says Jeffrey Chambers, health and safety administrator at Tokai Rika. "The changes are in pennies; the rewards are in dollars." These savings notwithstanding, Chambers says many companies will not take preventative steps on their own. "A good share of corporations need that [regulatory] push to ensure a safe environment for employees," he says.
Despite the successful track record that some companies have had with ergonomics, House Republicans and the Coalition on Ergonomics argue that the proposed standards would turn workplaces into laboratories for "mushy science," hampering U.S. competitiveness in the process.
The McIntosh hearings sent a clear message to OSHA and other government agencies: Any new initiatives for government intervention in the workplace will be vigorously opposed by the Republican Congress. Many Republican members believe that the free market will take care of workers. "Businesses already have a powerful incentive to address ergonomic injuries in the workplace," says Christopher Shays, R-Connecticut. Shays chairs the House Subcommittee on Human Resources and Intergovernmental Relations, which has jurisdiction over OSHA. "Where ergonomic injuries contribute to workers' compensation costs, companies will want to take action on their own," he says.
The free-market ideology in Congress manifests itself in a full-scale attack on regulations that House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Georgia, dismissed in May 1995 hearings as "self-evidently stupid, profoundly dumb, stupidly legal and silly."
One of Gingrich's foot soldiers, Tom DeLay, R-Texas, introduced an amendment to the 1995 recissions bill in March that would have cut $3.5 million from OSHA's $312 million fiscal year 1995 budget. DeLay described the amendment, which failed, as an effort to force the agency to halt work on its ergonomic standards. "OSHA's express intention to do business as usual in this area sends a very clear signal that the discipline Congress is seeking to bring to federal regulatory agencies will not come easily," he said.
With legislators such as these setting the regulatory agenda, the federal government is sending a callous message to employers around the country:profits first, safety second.
What is a Worker's Life Worth?
EVEN THOUGH APPROXIMATELY 56,000 U.S. workers die of job-related
injuries or illnesses each year, some members of the U.S. Congress -- citing
"excessive regulatory burdens" -- are trying to undercut Occupational Safety
and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations that are intended to protect
But many anecdotes used in Congress to attack so-called regulatory burdens on
business do not sound so ridiculous when the rationale behind them is
While critics twist facts to ridicule workplace safety standards, these rules save the lives of many workers and many more could be saved.
The lives lost in the cases mentioned below could have been saved if employers
followed health and safety regulations:
Earlier this year, OSHA head Joseph Dear testified that had House proposals to make it more difficult to implement new rules been in place in 1989, when lockout standards were introduced, the implementation delay would have resulted in 366 fatalities and 85,248 injuries that quick rulemaking has prevented.
The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 requires OSHA to set standards for toxic or harmful substances that "assure, to the extent feasible, on the basis of the best available evidence" that no employee will suffer material impairment of health.
The Supreme Court upheld OSHA's definition of "feasible" ("capable of being done") in a 1981 case (American Textile Manufacturers Institute, Inc., et al. v. Donovan), holding that cost-benefit analysis is not required. The Court relied, in part, on the legislative record. In 1970, then-Senator Thomas Eagleton said, "Whether we, as individuals, are motivated by simple humanity or by simple economics, we can no longer permit profits to be dependent upon an unsafe or unhealthy worksite."
Armed with anecdotes and half-truths, Republican leaders in Congress have proposed legislation that would subject worker safety bills to cost-benefit analysis. Representative Cass Ballenger, R-North Carolina, introduced the so-called Safety and Health Improvement and Regulatory Reform Act of 1995. Under this act, OSHA would have to apply cost-benefit and risk-assessment tests to all existing and pending standards.
Representative Major Owens, D-New York, and AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Thomas R. Donahue dubbed the bill "The Death and Injury Act of 1995" because they said it would severely weaken agency enforcement, encouraging employers to ignore safety and health rules. Peg Seminario, the AFL-CIO's top safety and health official, called the bill "a wish list of pent-up frustrations of business people who don't think the government should have any role in protecting safety and health and [who think that they] should have a free rein in what happens in their workplaces."
Assessing the costs and benefits of regulatory proposals is much more difficult than proponents concede. According to an April 1995 letter from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) to Senator Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, the bills "imply that the costs and benefits of regulations can be readily and precisely determined, and that scientists have techniques that can accurately predict the harmful consequences of particular activities." The UCS said that "although some risk assessments entail complex manipulations of data and measurements, they are permeated with value-laden judgments. At their best, risk assessments contain data gaps and rely on assumptions that can affect the outcome by 100 to 1,000 fold or more. At their worst, risk assessments are no more than crude guesses as to what the harmful impact of an activity might be."
Despite these difficulties, researchers struggle to provide policymakers with the numbers they crave. Current estimates of the "value of life" are based on how much additional compensation blue collar workers demand to perform riskier jobs. Most of these estimates calculate that a worker's life is worth between $3 million and $7 million.
Under cost-benefit analysis proposals, these estimates would be used to calculate the benefits of existing and proposed regulations and to compare them with implementation costs. If the expected cost of a regulation would exceed the estimated value of the lives it would save, then the regulation either would be rejected or would come under closer scrutiny.
The final result of this questionable process would be to save money from being spent on lives that -- according to cost-benefit advocates -- are too costly to save.
-- Janice Shields