Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)

  • September 5, 2011
    Guest Post

    by Marion G. Crain, the Wiley B. Rutledge Professor of Law and Director, Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Work & Social Capital, at the Washington University School of Law


    Labor Day celebrates the historical contributions of the American labor movement to the lives of millions of working people. Today, however,unions are under siege. In the public sector, governors seeking to slash budgets are deauthorizing state labor laws that govern the organizing and bargaining rights of state employees. In the private sector, both the federal legislation that supports union action and the administrative body that enforces the law (the National Labor Relations Act and the National Labor Relations Board, respectively) are under attack. Union density is on a dramatic downswing. Are unions passé?

    Unions formed to challenge the dramatic wealth inequality between business owners and workers that characterized the nineteenth century social condition.  Most working families -- children, as well as adults -- labored under oppressive and dangerous conditions: seven days and sixty-plus hours per week, for pennies an hour, in workplaces with overtly dangerous conditions (the open flames in coal mines, for example, led to frequent explosions that maimed and killed many miners). Unions fought to change these conditions: to raise wages, to reduce hours, to enhance worker safety on the job. As they matured, unions partnered with the civil rights movement to battle entrenched racial segregation and discrimination in employment. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, a staunch union advocate, espoused a vision of racial equality that was premised on a call for economic justice. Indeed, King’s assassination occurred while he was in Memphis supporting a sanitation workers’ strike.

    Today, an array of statutes protects the vast majority of workers against such abuses.  Unions played a key role in obtaining such protections, and in defending them against political challengers. They raised workers’ expectations and encouraged them to demand to be treated with dignity, lobbied for legislation that would improve the standard of living for all workers, and litigate on behalf of workers for the most worker friendly interpretations of the law. The Fair Labor Standards Act (establishing a minimum wage and the right to overtime pay for hours worked in excess of 40 per week), the Occupational Safety and Health Act (establishing standards for safe workplaces), Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, sex, national origin and religion), and the Family and Medical Leave Act (offering job protection for unpaid medical and family-care-related leave) are among the many legislative achievements that would not exist without the advocacy of labor unions. 

    As valuable as it may be, the individual rights model outlined above leaves economic issues like living wages, job security, health insurance and pension benefits to individual negotiation. But individual workers are relatively powerless to negotiate with corporate employers who hold the purse-strings to desperately needed jobs, and many workers willingly sacrifice anything to get and keep a job. Unions, however, are able to capitalize on the collective strength of the group to negotiate collective bargaining agreements that guarantee job security and establishbenefit packages that include health insurance, pension coverage, vacation pay, and paid family leave. Once obtained, these important benefits are often extended across entire industries or sectors by employers competing to attract the best workers. Further, most workers lack the knowledge of their legal rights and the resources to challenge violations of rights guaranteed in individual rights statutes. Unions thus play an important role as watchdogs for workers’ rights, and are the most effective vehicle for extending those rights beyond the minimum floor prescribed by employment legislation.

    Thus, labor unions are widely credited with creating and sustaining a strong middle class in America. Autoworkers, steelworkers, coalminers, nurses, teachers, and many others enjoy a middle-class standard of living because of their collectively-bargained wage and benefit packages. 

  • April 22, 2010
    Guest Post

    By Rena Steinzor, President, Center for Progressive Reform, Professor of Law, University of Maryland School of Law
    On the list of federal agencies decimated by the Bush administration, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) deserves to be placed right near the top. Here is an agency that for decades has struggled with a tiny budget to get the job done, only to be taken over for eight years by a group of industry representatives dedicated to lowering the cost of doing business. What's left for the Obama administration -- and David Michaels, the head of OSHA -- has been what I'd technically define as a "mess."

    It's in that context that a group of Member Scholars of the Center for Progressive Reform released Workers at Risk: Regulatory Dysfunction at OSHA. We wanted to examine what has gone so wrong at the agency, and explore what the Obama administration can do within existing law to get the agency on track. (Legislative changes to the OSH Act would be useful as well, but that's for another day's discussion).

    In its very early years, OSHA acted with great vigor, establishing important standards for occupational health and safety that have prevented hundreds of thousands of injuries and illnesses. But the agency has not aged gracefully. In the late 1970s, the ratio of federal inspectors to federally protected workers was about 1 to 30,000. Today, an OSHA inspector covers more than 60,000 workers, and federal and state officials cannot be expected to inspect even a small fraction of U.S. worksites in any given year.

    The agency's rulemaking staff struggle to produce health and safety standards that can withstand industry legal challenges. In the last decade, in fact, OSHA has dropped more standards from its regulatory agenda than it has finalized.

    The construction crane safety rule is a perfect example of the broken process: it's taken the agency about a decade and a half and we still don't have a final regulation. By OSHA's estimates, 89 people are killed and 263 are injured each year in construction crane incidents. The existing safety standards haven't changed since 1971, even though there have been major technological changes since then. By the mid-1990s, industry itself began petitioning OSHA for stronger and more comprehensive regulations, and in 2004 a committee of industry, labor, and government representatives reached agreement on a draft proposed rule. But it was only a few weeks ago that OSHA sent a draft final rule to OMB for review.