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OSHA's Suggested Reforms For Promoting Workplace Safety

In its winter newsletter last week, The New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH) published 34 of its members’ ideas on how to repair OSHA. The suggested reforms are sweeping, and they need to be.

Though far from perfect before his administration, President George W. Bush’s eight years of neglecting and sabotaging OSHA have left the agency woefully ill-equipped to protect workers’ rights to a safe and healthy workplace. Now, with Democratic majorities in Congress and President Obama in the White House, there is finally some hope that OSHA will receive the guidance and funding it needs to perform its mission of promoting workplace safety.

  • It has a long way to go. The report offers some staggering figures (all for 2007):
  • 5,488 workers were killed on the job (more than 15 per day)
  • 50,000 workers died from occupational diseases
  • 4 million on-the-job injuries were reported, though the total number of on-the-job injuries was probably closer to 12 million (more than 5 every 15 seconds)
  • With current staff and budget levels, it would take OSHA 133 years to inspect every workplace in the country

What needs to be done? The short answer: a whole lot. The NYCOSH members had plenty of recommendations, but two themes were nearly universal. Almost all the members agreed that tightening standards would be a good first step toward promoting safety in the workplace. But they also held that all the standards in the world would not solve the underlying problem: most injuries and OSHA violations go unreported because workers are afraid that their rights are not protected.

They’re afraid they will lose their jobs and they have every right to be afraid. Employers can fire non-union workers with little trouble, and threaten to do just that to workers who report injuries, accidents or OSHA violations.

The NYCOSH members argue that only the easy unionization promised by the Employee Free Choice Act can adequately protect workers from abusive employers and promote workplace safety. Once workers are free to report injuries, accidents or abuses without fear of reprisal, NYCOSH imagines that they, along with their unions, will help OSHA protect workers’ rights by policing their own employers.

It would surely be easier for OSHA to promote safety in every workplace in America if employees reliably reported injuries, violations and accidents. Knowing where violations are occurring is half the battle and would greatly aid OSHA’s efforts in deploying enforcement of abused or injured workers’ rights.

NYCOSH should be commended for putting the Employee Free Choice Act, which has strong support from the President, at the center of its proposal to repair OSHA. It should similarly be praised for avoiding recommendations involving additional funding, which, in this economic climate, OSHA is unlikely to receive.

Its proposed solutions, most of which were not covered here, were realistic and pragmatic. If any of them come to pass America’s workplaces will be that much safer.


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