Confined Space
News and Commentary on Workplace Health & Safety, Labor and Politics

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Washington DC: Where All Your Nightmares Can Come True

I wrote a parody Friday of Bush OSHA policy, partly based on the recent Wal-Mart settlement with the Labor Department that allowed a 15 day advance notice of all child labor inspections. The nightmare scenario was that the Bush administration might want to change the law to allow advance warnings for workplace safety inspections, which are currently prohited by the Occuational Safety and Health Act.

According to Hartford Courant columnist Dan Haar, my nightmares may be coming true:
When news came out a few days ago of the Bush administration's deal giving Wal-Mart advance warning before inspecting for labor law violations, I thought of a visit to The Courant by Labor Secretary Elaine Chao.

It was Aug. 8, 2002, a summer when Chao was floating all sorts of ideas about ways to make her department more friendly to business.

Sure, the sweet-talking Chao talked all about protecting workers. She framed her message in win-win terms, how the world could be safer for employees and companies alike if only we all worked together.

She actually suggested that companies should receive advance warning of safety and health inspections. After all, she reasoned, most employers mean well, so why shouldn't the government help them to help workers?

It was a line lost amid the day's business. The record will show that the law remains unchanged: Inspections by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration must, with some clear exceptions, be a surprise.

Chao's advance-warning brainstorm appeared in none of her speeches before or after that date, at least among the many archived on her website. Several OSHA watchdogs and officials said during the last five days that they've never heard her utter it.

But she said it, and a colleague and I shared amazement. I shouldn't have let Chao's comments slip by. Now it's clear: She, her boss and her deputies have reshaped the enforcement culture of the U.S. Department of Labor in favor of employers.
Be afraid. Be very afraid.

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