Worker Safety

  • 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.