Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Why is OSHA Hiding Its Enforcement Successes From the Public?

By: OSHA Gadfly

OSHA's public image took a beating last year after a devastating series of articles in the New York Times reported how, thanks to the agency’s lame criminal enforcement effort, some employers are essentially getting away with murder.

So you would think that when the agency takes steps to improve its enforcement record, OSHA's communications office would trumpet the news from the rooftops.

A recent article in Confined Space pointed out that over the past two years OSHA's criminal referrals to the Department of Justice are at a 14-year high. In that same article we learned about a new compliance directive designed to help agency inspectors improve criminal enforcement of the OSH Act. Why did this news come not from OSHA communications, but from the Occupational Hazards Web site?

You could add to this, "we’re embarrassed to talk about it list," information about OSHA’s Enhanced Enforcement Program (EEP). Why not tell the public what companies are on the EEP list? What did they do to get there and what are the consequences?

Last year OSHA also kept quiet a $77,000 fine against Weyerhaeuser for failing to record dozens of injuries and illnesses. Why does this matter?

Broadcasting tough enforcement actions would not only help repair OSHA's battered reputation. More importantly, getting the word out that employers who break the law will pay a high price is a question of not wasting the precious money of taxpayers, something that used to be an important part of the Republican agenda.

Because it lacks the resources to inspect more than a tiny infraction of the nation's workplaces, OSHA - like the Internal Revenue Service - relies largely on voluntary compliance with its regulations. It would take over a hundred years for OSHA to inspect every workplace in America, and don’t think U.S. employers don’t know it. Quite obviously, you get a "bigger bang for the buck" when you publicize the large enforcement actions. The idea is to use publicity to expand the deterrent, striking fear into the hearts of employers who otherwise might be tempted to cut corners that cost lives but save money.

Publicity, or rather bad publicity, is even more critical when it comes to deterring big companies from violating OSHA rules. Even when caught, an OSHA fine of $50,000 or $100,000 is chump change for the big boys. What they care about is the damage to their reputation that results from an OSHA citation. But if no one finds out about it...

Burying the Weyerhaeuser case seems especially odd. Given how little enforcement OSHA does of the recordkeeping rule, how hard it is to catch records cheaters, and the critical role accurate OSHA logs play in the agency’s Site Specific Targeting program, you would think they would want to play up the few big fish they do catch. It’s like being audited by the IRS – only rarer.

Of course OSHA does publicize some of its big enforcement cases, sending out national press releases, often with apparently ready-made quotations from Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao about how the tragic loss of life could have been avoided if only the employer had followed OSHA regulations.

But the publicity is selective. The most serious cases that receive publicity typically involve worker fatalities in construction or trenching operations. Ironically, the employers tend to be small and without national reputations.

Here's what you will be less likely to read about in OSHA press releases:
  • OSHA's internal institutional effort to overcome the hurdles to aggressive enforcement of the OSH Act.
  • Anything having to do with criminal enforcement of the OSH Act.
  • Enforcement actions taken against large employers with national reputations, especially if they are involved in OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program, like Weyerhaeuser.
Why would OSHA not want to talk about these successes? Perhaps I’m too suspicious, but I think it has a lot to do with the political people now running the show. (Another old Republican complaint about Democrats: they politicized everything.)

Republicans like to talk about being the party of small business, tough law enforcement, and the frugal management of taxpayer dollars. But OSHA’s apparent unwillingness to tell us about many of its enforcement successes raises questions about whether these priorities are a match for another GOP principle: the money and influence of big business.