Sunday, April 27, 2003


Remember when WMD stood for Workers Memorial Day?

Bush's OSHA: Flee from All That You Can Be

Now as you all know, I really try to give these guys in the Administration the benefit of the doubt sometimes. Even if they weren't really elected. Even if many of them are anti-worker zealots who behave like subsidiaries of the Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers. I think some of them really do want to do something to save workers' lives, in their odd, dysfunctional, nasty Republican way. And you've got to give them a little credit for recognizing Workers Memorial Day every year. A little.

But sometimes, sometimes, they just drive me over the edge. Especially on Workers Memorial Day. Let me count the ways.

1. OSHA's theme for Workers Memorial Day 2003 is “Safety and health add value to businesses, workplaces and people's lives.” We know that this is the them because OSHA’s Workers Memorial Day Press Release repeats this phrase twice. This is amusing because this was the year that the New York Times and Frontline did a series on McWane Industries, which clearly believed that added value lay in making as much money as possible not caring how many workers you injured or killed until finally high OSHA fines, adverse media attention and threats of criminal prosecution forced the company to be accountable for its workers' safety and health. Interestingly, corporate accountability is the world-wide labor union theme for Workers Memorial Day this year.

2. Henshaw to Families of Workplace Fatalities: "Message -- I care." Last year's big Workers Memorial Day announcement from OSHA was that Assistant Secretary John Henshaw would personally write letters to the families of all workers who are killed on the job. This year, OSHA triumphantly announced that Henshaw had, in fact, "written to the families of over 500 men and women who lost their lives while at work." (How careless of them to "lose" their lives. Where did they go?)
Statistical Note: Letters were sent to only 500 of the more than 6,000 workers killed in on-the-job "accidents" each year, because many are in state plan states and others fall outside of OSHA's jurisdiction, leaving 1,000 deaths that OSHA investigated. For half of those, "OSHA has not been able to identify parties where letters could be sent." Just as well. All those letters could have caused a musculoskeletal injury.
3. Last year on Workers Memorial Day, OSHA announced that it would "soon begin to collect data on country of origin and primary language capability for all workers involved in fatality and other serious accident investigations." That was a good thing. In fact if you look up the two recent confined space deaths that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, you would find that they were coded as immigrant workers.

Now that OSHA has a better handle on who's being killed, this year's big immigrant announcement was that OSHA was going to address the high number of immigrant fatalities by releasing not one, but two public service announcements to over 650 Spanish radio stations across the country. One spot is meant for employees and their families; the other targets employers.

We here at Confined Space think that these public service announcements should be really helpful in preventing the deaths of Hispanic workers. I can hardly wait to see them. I'm sure that if only those public service announcements had been out a few months ago, those two Hispanic workers (and probably hundreds of others) would be alive today. And I'm sure all of those employers who kill Hispanic workers are shaking in their boots:
Message from OSHA to Contractors Who Employee Hispanic Workers: You are accountable for the health and safety of your employees. Yet you have been taking advantage of your workers, especially your immigrant workers, seriously injuring and killing many of them. We're out of patience. You've been warned. You've had your last chance. We are now bringing down the full weight of the Government of the United States upon your heads. We are announcing today the release of two public service announcements. And if you don't shape up, we'll release two more. And we'll keep releasing them until you understand that health and safety means added value to your enterprise. And if you still don't get the message, you can look forward to a long, painful future of partnerships, alliances and voluntary guidelines.
Time out for an ironic note on all of this. Henshaw's promise to write letters to the families of workers killed in the workplace ("lost their lives") drew strong praise from Ron Hayes, a member of OSHA's National Advisory Committee on Safety and Health, who became a workplace safety activist several years ago after his son was killed in a workplace accident and OSHA fined the company only $42,000. The irony, is that the TOTAL fine against the company that killed the two workers in the confined space referenced above was $62,000. Only $56,000 of that -- $23,000 a body -- was for the fatalities.

4. Eureka! On this Workers Memorial Day, OSHA has just discovered (or re-discovered) that "the long term health effects of exposure to chemicals and other toxins can take years and even decades to determine." So what's the agency to do with this new-found knowledge?

Three guesses.
a) Issue new chemical exposure standards.

b) Announce a major new initiative to propose legislation allowing the agency to revise OSHA's old Permissible Exposure Limits for chemicals -- limits that are currently based on recommendations from the 1960's

c) Announce that a respiratory disease study will be undertaken in cooperation with the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health to improve outreach, compliance assistance and enforcement efforts relating to specific contaminants and industries.

d) Announce a health targeting system, similar to one used to guide enforcement efforts in general industry.

e) (c) and (d)

f) (a) and (b)

(Hint: If you guessed (a) or (b), I know a guy in Baghdad who has some Weapons of Mass Destruction to sell you.)
Time's up. The correct answer is (e). (Really)

5. Enhanced Enforcement: Last month the agency announced its "Enhanced Enforcement Program to target employers who have a history of the most severe safety and health violations." This is a result of the McWane investigation by the NY Times and Frontline. They're going after the bad actors. But no sign that they are planning to increase penalties. The AFL-CIO reports that in FY 2002, serious violations of the Occupational Safety and Health Act carried an average penalty of only $886 ($867 for Federal OSHA, $904 for state OSHA plans).

I remember not too long ago OSHA would frequently issue million dollar penalties for ergonomic and other hazards. Their latest ergonomic citations were a few hundred dollars.

As for me, I'd take all the parking tickets you can give me as long as the fines are low enough.

6. Finally, maybe I'm quibbling about wording. This is what John Henshaw said: "Every day 16 workers die in this country, and many more become injured or seriously ill. We must challenge those who are not doing their part to step up to the plate."

Now, when my kids need to do better in school, I "challenge" them to "step up to the plate." When my kids are afraid of striking out in baseball, I "challenge" them to "step up to the plate." But when my kids do something incredibly boneheaded or dangerous or careless that endangers their lives or the lives of others -- especially when they knew what they were doing was wrong -- I'm way past "challenging" them to "step up to the plate." Exit supportive parent. ENTER WRATHFUL GOD.


This is the introduction to the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970:
To assure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women; by authorizing enforcement of the standards developed under the Act; by assisting and encouraging the States in their efforts to assure safe and healthful working conditions; by providing for research, information, education, and training in the field of occupational safety and health; and for other purposes.
Cutting through all of the spin and press releases and rhetoric, this is the bottom line: Congress gave OSHA the responsibility and the mandate to develop standards and enforce those standards in order to make employers accountable for assuring American workers a safe and healthful workplace. Employees have right to a safe and healthful workplace and the employer is responsible. The bald truth is that OSHA is not fulfilling the mandate that Congress gave it, nor are they even making a good faith attempt to do so. Despite the high number of new and revised standards needed to make our workplaces safer, OSHA has gone out of the standards business. They don't have enough inspectors to reach more than a small fraction of American workplaces each year, and even when they do inspect a workplace and cite an employer – often after workers have been killed or injured due to willfull violations of OSHA standards, the penalties are so low that most employers don't even care. They add more value to their businesses by correctly figuring that they'll never see an OSHA inspector.

You know what? I’ve changed my mind. I refuse to give them credit for recognizing Workers Memorial Day. It just cheapens the whole thing and allows them to rest smugly in their hypocrisy and dishonesty. As far as I’m concerned, Bush’s recognition of Workers Memorial Day adds no value – or dignity -- to anyone’s lives.