Sunday, January 11, 2004

How They See Us Down Under

This is an interesting article by, Kevin Taylor, a New Zealand Herald columnist who visited the United States to compare the business climate there with that in New Zealand. Some of his observations about the U.S. are in accurate, some simplistic, but others a bit upsetting (not that we didn't know).

For example, what happens in the U.S. if a worker is injured?
ABC Tech is covered by the Occupational Safety and Health Act and its general duties rule - the employer must maintain as safe and healthy a workplace as is reasonably possible.

OSHA rarely prosecutes but does spot inspections and issues instant citations - which happened two months ago.

However, an assembler burned himself with a soldering iron last week and agency staff arrive unannounced for another inspection.

This time they find three "other than serious" violations and fine the employer US$900 for each.

The worker's medical bill to treat the burn is covered by workers' compensation insurance paid for through the company.

The law does not allow the owner to retaliate against any employee who tipped off health and safety officials to unsafe practices or equipment.

The Mercatus Centre at Virginia's George Mason University conservatively estimated last year that the total cost of all workplace regulations in the US was at least US$91 billion annually.

Occupational safety and health was the single largest component of that cost, at US$48.6 billion, but the authors of the study acknowledge they did not measure the benefits of laws that cover safety and health.
If you didn't know any better, you might think from reading this article that
  • The Mercatus Center was a legitimate authority on workplace safety instead of a rabidly right-wing, anti-union, anti-OSHA nut-house that earlier this year put out a report purporting that OSHA inspections cause more injuries than they prevent. (Check it out here if you are in need of amusement.)

  • OSHA inspects workplaces after injuries occur.

  • That there are no OSHA standards, only the "general duties rule" which requires the employer to keep a workplace "as safe as reasonably possible," instead of the stronger (on paper) General Duty Clause which states that the employer "shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees."
Taylor also lays out a hypothetical (failed) union organizing campaign in the U.S., complete with captive worker meetings and successful efforts to keep organizers out of the workplace. He then notes that
the union agitators could also have been fired for organising - as routinely happens at other firms. Although illegal, the penalties are so low that they are seen by some as just a cost of doing business.
In New Zealand, on the other hand, the union organizers can freely talk to the workers, sign them up and start negotiating a contract.

How civilized.