September 2002 - VOLUME 23 - NUMBER 9
An Interview with Lisa Cullen
Lisa Cullen for years worked as a corporate safety and health manager. She was so distressed by what she saw that she quit her job and vowed to write a book, now published as A Job to Die For: Why So Many Americans Are Killed, Injured or Made Ill at Work and What To Do About It, about what is wrong in the U.S. workplace.
|As a nation, our occupational injury and illness rate rivals that of AIDS, Alzheimer's, certain types of cancers.||
Multinational Monitor: Why did you write A Job to Die For?
MM: How many people die in the United States from work-related
MM: These numbers are way down from 30 years ago. Are safety programs
MM: One hundred and sixty five die every day from occupational
diseases, 18 die every day from work-related injuries, 36,400 suffer non-fatal
injuries, and 3,200 get ill from occupational diseases, every day. You
say that all of this costs $155 billion a year.
These are direct and indirect costs. These do not include pain and suffering. These are also only the costs businesses are covering, not those paid directly by the injured or ill workers.
MM: Since the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
was created in 1970, the death rates from injuries in the United States
have gone down.
Now, I don't think we would want an OSHA that is capable of going out and physically inspecting every workplace. We need employers to run their workplaces in a safe and healthy manner to begin with.
Many already do. But for those who don't, we need to strengthen the threat of OSHA and carry out the original intent of the OSH Act: To pose a threat of fines and jail time if employees are found to have violated the standards. If you look at the numbers, OSHA is just not coming through with any serious threat. Companies know this.
MM: How frequently are criminal penalties imposed for employers
exposing their workers to dangerous conditions?
MM: You worked with companies as a safety officer. Why can't companies
by themselves assure a safe workplace?
MM: Do the majority of employers want to do the right thing?
MM: They know that a strong OSHA helps them do the right thing.
Why don't the businesses organize to give OSHA a little more muscle?
In those gray areas, OSHA helps keep the playing field level ó if they would consistently apply the regulations and enforce them. Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way.
For example, a company I worked for required shoring excavations so they would not cave in on workers. But once my manager literally drove down the road from our worksite to find the competition working without shoring. They took chances and were lucky that they did not have a cave-in. They did the job cheaper and it was harder to bid against. That was hard for my boss to deal with.
MM: In your book, you raise the example of Crouse Hinds, which
is a division of Cooper Industries. They were involved in a case where
a worker was killed.
Traditionally, there have been four types of violations ó willful, serious, repeat and other.
If an employer doesn't abate a hazard, they might get a failure to abate citation.
"Unclassified" is a relatively new citation, created by federal OSHA. It lets the employer off the hook for future repeat citations and it removes the stigma and legal implications of a willful violation.
MM: In this case, a worker was killed. Ultimately, there was no
willful citation. Why do companies fear a willful citation?
MM: Under these agreements, the company is let off the hook, other
than the fine.
And I just read a magazine article last month where the writer was advising safety and health professionals to fight willful violations because of the legal implications. They know that they can get OSHA to back off.
So, these unclassifieds shouldn't exist. OSHA is changing willfuls to unclassifieds. But OSHA is also initially issuing unclassifieds which is inconsistent with their own practice. And this has been going on for over 10 years.
MM: Does the law need to be changed?
There is nothing wrong with the original OSH Act, just this practice of creating and modifying citations and penalties. Not only does OSHA remove the stigma associated with the willful violation, it discounts the penalties an average of 30 percent and removes the possibility of criminal prosecution.
MM: You point out that occupational disease and injury affects
not just blue collar workers.
So, today, you have what I call the traditional blue collar jobs, the light blue collar jobs, and the smock jobs ó which are your retail and your cashiers, your restaurant workers, hotel workers, and white collar workers. There are hazards, diseases and injuries posed by all of those jobs. Twenty percent of fatalities occur in construction sites. We are seeing violence and homicide on the job in retail jobs. Indoor air quality affects white collar workers. Occupational injuries and illnesses don't discriminate.
MM: You say that the surveillance system set up by the federal
government has failed us.
The Leigh team estimated that Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers are off by 53 percent. That is caused by a number of factors ó underreporting, the exclusion of public employees, exclusion of entire industries, and the exclusion of small employers. There is also the problem that employers may genuinely not know what occupational diseases are arising from their workplaces. An obstructive lung disorder, for example, may not be recognized as a occupational illness by a doctor, let alone an employer.
MM: Part of OSHA's job is to issue new health and safety standards.
How is it doing on this front?
OSHA tried with ergonomics, just to have Congress overthrow it.
It takes OSHA 10 years to promulgate one standard.
Beryllium is a metal used in the electronics industry and in defense because it is such a useful metal. Beryllium is also a known human carcinogen. OSHA has acknowledged that its exposure limit is too high. Even the Department of Energy's exposure limit for beryllium is 10 times lower than OSHA's. OSHA continues to have this high exposure limit. And OSHA's limit is the one that is legally enforceable for most workers.
Public Citizen and the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical & Energy Workers union have petitioned OSHA to lower the beryllium limit but OSHA doesn't do it. They are also suing OSHA to lower the hexavalent chromium standard.
For both, I think OSHA should issue Emergency Temporary Standards and lower the permissible exposure limits. Of course, OSHA would then be sued by affected industries. The current beryllium limit is 50 years old. The electronics industry, for example, doesn't want the exposure limit lowered. There are about 30,000 workers estimated to be exposed to beryllium just in the electronics industry.
MM: Most people who use computers assume electronics is a clean
What makes exposures in industries like electronics difficult to control is the combinations and mixtures used.
MM: Do we know what the rate of occupational disease is among workers
People are confused because they hear that computer chips are manufactured in clean rooms. But they are clean to protect the equipment. They are not necessarily clean for the workers.
MM: You make the point in your book that while we say that injuries
and deaths are the result of accidents, in a sense they are not accidents.
These are not out of our control. These injuries and deaths are preventable. So, I don't like to call them accidents.
We have the technology and knowledge to do a much better job. And we can save people's lives. We can stop families from being destroyed when their bread winner is put out of work. We can do much better. n
|With their current budget and staffing ó there are 2,238 federal and state OSHA inspectors for 8 million workplaces ó it would take OSHA 119 years to inspect every workplace.|
Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers [on workplace injuries have been estimated to be] off by 53 percent. That is caused by a number of factors ó underreporting, the exclusion of public employees, exclusion of entire industries, and the exclusion of small employers.