Saturday, June 12, 2004

OSHA's Not A Fraud. Not Sure About Scripps-Howard

A couple of weeks ago, someone sent me an editorial from a Florida paper calling for passage of Charlie Norwood's legislation weakening the Occupational Safety and Health Act. Calling the bills a "gift to small business, to workers, to the economy generally and to America," the column goes on to state
The fact is, OSHA is pretty much a fraud. As analysts at the Cato Institute point out, there is no evidence the agency has made any significant impact on workplace safety in its 34 years of existence.
What's been making workplaces safer? Well, first no one does any hard dangerous work anymore (we all work in offices and Wal-Mart now) and the risk of lawsuits and rising workers comp insurance premiums forces employers to keep the workplace safe (at least until they manage to pass tort "reform.")-- in other words, the free market works! (Yeah, yeah, tell it to these guys, and these and these and this kid and this guy and ...)

The editorial then trots out that old study by the libertarian Cato Institute that claims that not only do OSHA regulations strangle business, but OSHA regulations actually kill workers. (The reason, in case you haven't moved on to some more sensible reading material by now is that if a company is doing more to protect their workers, the workers have less incentive to protect themselves. Get it?)

Yeah, yeah, probably just some crazy editor who just stumbled upon the the Cato article.

But then someone sent me the same editorial, this time from the East Valley (Arizona) Tribune. And then I did a search and found more and more, all in Scripps-Howard newspapers, some by Jay Ambrose, director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard Newspapers, and some just generic editorials. Turns out it was on Scripps-Howard's editorial of the week list.

Scripps-Howard doesn't exactly have a "pro-OSHA" history. In 2000 it reprinted an anti-ergonomics screed by Eugene Scalia, an attorney who led that charge against OSHA's ergonomics standard (and was later appointed Solicitor of Labor by President Bush), and published at least one decidedly unfavorable "news" story quoting employers who had bad experiences with ergonomics and insurance companies saying the market was taking care of the problem.

At least one person (aside from me) was upset about this polemic. Safety professonal Thomas Wazelle Jr published a letter to the editor in the Fort Smith, Arkansas Times Record
OSHA Saves Lives, Remains Necessary

As a safety professional, I was dismayed to read the description of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the guest editorial in the May 20, 2004 Times Record. OSHA is not a fraud. Far from it. Anyone who believes that employees may rely solely on the largess and good will of most employers to protect them on the job is not dealing with reality.

Further, the statement that most employers will make their work sites safe to avoid high insurance costs is naive as well. Many employers will complain vociferously about the high cost of workers’ compensation insurance while refusing to invest the time and resources to establish and maintain a safe and healthy workplace.

Employees realize that safety first is seldom an employer’s first priority. Production and survival of the business is, of necessity, the first priority. For that reason alone OSHA is necessary. In 1970, the year before the Occupational Safety and Health Act was implemented, there were more than 14,000 worker deaths in America. In 2003 there were less than 6,000.

OSHA has worked hard to change from a policing agency to an agency that partners with employers and employer groups and professional organizations such as the American Society of Safety Engineers, to advise and mentor. Yes, OSHA compliance adds to the cost of goods and services, but so do a myriad of other government regulations. The difference is that OSHA saves lives.

Thomas Wazelle Jr.