What are OSHA's goals in the last days of the Bush administration? Where are its priorities? How can we tell?
We could study the words of the President, but there aren't any except for occasional generalizations about getting the economy going by reducing burdensome regulations.
We could study the words of John Henshaw, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health. But what one says and what one does may, to put it subtly, conflict.
I've devised a better method. The aforementioned Mr. Henshaw just delivered a speech
at the annual conference of the National Safety Council before its 10,000 attendees were chased from their conference in New Orleans by Ivan. Ivan threatened not only to drown what is arguably the United States' most interesting city, but also to wash out to sea a good part of (corporate) America's workplace health and safety leadership, as well as a significant portion of OSHA's staff.
But I digress. Back to the speech. Instead of analyzing what Mr. Henshaw actually said
, I want to try something else: count how much time (counted in words) he spent on OSHA's various priorities. Thanks to Word's
'Word Count' function, the analysis was easy. Here are the results of the six subjects of henshaw's speech, from least to most important.
6. Least Important: Standards: (2.8%)
This is certainly a surprise. From the repeal of the ergonomics standard to the withdrawal of the TB standard
, to the purgatory of the "Payment for Personal Protective Equipment" standard, OSHA has all but shut down it's standards department. In fact, the only standard on which there seems to be work happening is the hexavalent chromium standard
, but OSHA is under court order to issue that proposal.
5. Training and Outreach: (3.4%)
This is hardly a surprise. Bush/Henshaw have been trying to kill the Susan Harwood training grant
program ever since Bush uttered the words "so help me God." Every year, the administration's budget proposal attempts to eliminate the program that provides grants to workers, universities, public interest groups and industry associations, and cut the total training budget from a "whopping" $11 million to an even more paltry $4 million and replacing actual training with a program designed to produce electronic training materials like CD-ROMs and web pages. Considering that a large part of this money goes to educating immigrant workers, it places a bit of a damper on OSHA's next priority....
4. Hispanic Worker Outreach (4.3%)
: As everyone who follows workplace safety issues know, Hispanic workers are much more likely to die
in the workplace than native-born Americans. There are a variety of reasons: hungry for jobs, they do more dangerous work, they are reluctant to complain about unsafe conditions for fear of losing those jobs, they often don' speak English well enough to understand whatever paltry amount of training they may get, they don't know about OSHA or are afraid to call, for fear of being fired or deported (if they are undocumented).
To its credit, OSHA has not ignored or denied the problem, but its response has been less than inspiring. Several OSHA regions are increasing the amount of outreach they are doing to Hispanic community organizations, and some grants are being given to organizations targeting immigrant workers. But this isn't an easy problem. One would think that you'd want to get the best, most experienced minds in the country together to candidly discuss the issues and develop a long-term strategy. OSHA raised hopes that it was heading that direction by announcing a Hispanic Summit
to be held last summer. But hopes were dashed when the "Summit" turned into a press opportunity for Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao to give federal money away in the swing state of Florida, unions and community groups were not invited, NIOSH dropped its co-sponsorship, and only a couple of pro-Bush Hispanic business association were left as sponsors.
3. Enforcement (9%):
It's "strong, fair and effective enforcement", blah, blah, but behind that, we hear "adversarial", blah, blah, "Gestapo
," yadda, yadda. Enforcment hasn't taken a terrible hit in this administration, although it has been weakened
Between FY 1999 and FY 2003 the number of employees who work in workplaces inspected by federal OSHA inspections decreased by nearly 12 percent. The average number of hours spent per inspection also decreased between FY 1999 and FY 2003, from 22 to 18.8 hours per safety inspection and from 40 to 34.7 hours per health inspection. The number of citations for willful violations decreased from 607 in FY 1999 to 391 in FY 2003. The average penalty per violation and per willful violations both increased in FY 2003 from the FY 2002 level, while the average penalty per serious violation decreased to its lowest level since 1999. Between FY 1999 and FY 2003 the number of employees who work in workplaces inspected by federal OSHA inspections decreased by nearly 12 percent. The average number of hours spent per inspection also decreased between FY 1999 and FY 2003, from 22 to 18.8 hours per safety inspection and from 40 to 34.7 hours per health inspection. The number of citations for willful violations decreased from 607 in FY 1999 to 391 in FY 2003. The average penalty per violation and per willful violations both increased in FY 2003 from the FY 2002 level, while the average penalty per serious violation decreased to its lowest level since 1999.
More worrying is the prospect of a possible second Bush administration which plans to increase the number of VPP programs 10-fold
and guess where the budget for that expansion will come from?
Which brings us to....
2. Voluntary Programs (17%):
Two words: "They're expanding" More here
, if you're really interested.
Which brings us to the winner by a mile. The envelope please...
1. Seatbelts (34%):
Yes, you heard it here, OSHA's number one priority of the new century is apparently seatbelts. OSHA wasn't even created until 1971, but that's not keeping the agency from championing the leading safety issue of the 1960's.
OK, OK, it's true, as Henshaw says that that highway incidents are the leading cause of occupational deaths and nearly one-quarter of on-the-job fatalities involve motor vehicle incidents. And part of the campaign allegedly deals with "safe driving," but most of the campaign seems to be focused exclusively on seatbelts. One of the many things that bother me
about this is the obvious "blame the worker (for driving badly without buckling up)" overtones of this whole campaign. I haven't heard anything about OSHA doing (or even citing) any research concerning the causes
of highway incidents showing that cauases other than reckless or careless workers have been investigated -- like fatigue, work speed-up, faulty vehicle maintenance, etc. And how many highway-related fatalities are actually caused by workers not wearing seatbelts? OSHA presents no evidence to support this huge campaign.
Anyway, now we know what OSHA really stands for: the Occupational
Seatbelt and Health Administration.