Sunday, Nov. 30, 2008 | 2:04 a.m.
Safety issues succumb to partisanship in Congress.
Health and safety hazards are left untouched by regulators.
President Bush’s anti-regulatory zeal has put workers in danger.
Taxpayers shell out billions for workplace injuries.
To better protect workers, a full overhaul of OSHA is needed.
In the recent construction boom on the Las Vegas Strip, 12 workers were killed in industrial accidents during a 19-month period. The deaths highlighted a serious problem in the nation’s workplace health and safety laws and regulations.
The Las Vegas Sun’s editorial board worked for several months to investigate the issue, conducting in-depth interviews with a wide range of experts and reviewing thousands of pages of documents. These included congressional transcripts from the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, scientific studies, reports, publications and historic documents dating to the late 1800s.
The result is a five-part series of editorials that explores the problems with, and potential fixes to, America’s worker safety system.
Congress held emotionally charged hearings this year in the wake of the rash of construction deaths on the Las Vegas Strip and the series of crane failures in New York City.
Democrats and labor leaders excoriated the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency commissioned to protect workers. They called for changes in the agency and improved regulations.
Republicans and business leaders tried to downplay any connection between government oversight and the tragedies. They said new regulations would be burdensome to small business and cost too much money.
In the past, hearings on worker safety issues have ended at that point, with no one willing or able to cross the philosophical and political divide over government regulation. These hearings, however, provided a much-needed boost to legislative proposals that could make an enormous difference to construction workers in Las Vegas, crane operators in New York and indeed, employees across the country.
With a new administration about to take office and a renewed public concern about safety, the Democratic-controlled Congress stands on the cusp of a true overhaul of OSHA.
But to make needed changes, Democrats will have to have the spine for it. The path to overhaul OSHA has been littered with ill-fated legislation drawn up by lawmakers who failed to understand the perilous politics surrounding the agency that go back to its beginning.
A little history:
The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 created OSHA and its sister agency that oversees mine safety. Before signing it, President Richard Nixon praised the bipartisan support of the bill and added that the legislation exemplified “the American system at its best.”
But the legislative history shows a different story. It is a primer of political horse trading and gamesmanship, as the House and Senate passed significantly different versions of the bill.
House and Senate negotiators hammered out a compromise in several trying sessions. Critics in the House tried to stop the bill and led a raucous debate that ended only after Speaker Pro Tem Carl Albert of Oklahoma ordered the sergeant at arms to corral members and close the doors.
The bill passed by a large margin, but the compromises required created an unwieldy law that would make it difficult for OSHA to do a credible job in even the best of circumstances.
The mission of the agency is incredibly broad, and perhaps impossible. It is charged with regulating two areas — safety, such as fall protections at work sites, and health, such as air quality and chemicals. But it has never received the money or the freedom to do the job because of rancor in Congress.
OSHA’s first years of existence entrapped the agency in the political tumult, leaving it with a legacy of fear of political ramifications for its actions.
In 1972, a year after the agency came to life, the first OSHA administrator, George Guenther, was called before a congressional committee to explain how his nascent agency could move more quickly. By 1974, members of Congress were publicly complaining about the agency’s lack of speed in creating complex standards. Yet by 1976, President Ford created a task force to study government deregulation, starting with OSHA. By 1979 a group of lawmakers was openly campaigning to kill the agency.
Before OSHA could celebrate its 10th birthday, then-Sen. Richard Schweiker, a moderate Republican from Pennsylvania who had supported the agency’s creation, said it had become “perhaps the most despised federal agency in existence.”
Members of Congress have repeatedly put riders on OSHA bills that stop work on new regulations, and industry groups have worked to derail the agency with court challenges and sophisticated lobbying campaigns. Various presidential administrations have tried to gut or dismantle the agency.
The agency has been further hobbled by the legislation that created it, which set out an overly complicated regulatory process for OSHA to follow to create a health or safety standard. Because the process can take years and millions of dollars to complete, the agency has managed to create only 36 major health standards, covering a fraction of the known toxins and carcinogens in workplaces.
Instead of creating its own independent standards, the agency largely relies on industry standards it was mandated to adopt in the early 1970s. Many of those, based on scientific studies done in the 1950s and ’60s, haven’t been updated since.
Sadly, what has been lost in the political battle has been the safety of American workers. Although worker deaths have been cut in half in the past 37 years, nearly 5,500 workers still died last year on the job. The Labor Department says about 4 million Americans are injured at work each year, and many public health experts say the number of injuries is vastly underreported. The real number could be as high as 13 million people, or nearly a tenth of the American workforce.
The deaths and injuries have meant more than pain to the individuals involved. They have put a burden on taxpayers, who end up footing the bill through disability payments or increased insurance costs.
OSHA is an agency that was destined to fail and, after nearly 40 years, lawmakers should see worker safety for what it is — a public health crisis that costs America billions of dollars a year. It is time to make OSHA an agency that really is America at its best.