OSHA: The Next 35 Years ? What Would You Do?

Let’s project ourselves into the future a bit.  Suppose a labor-friendly Democratic president is elected in tow years, along with a Congress with strong, liberal Democratic majorities who vow to make sure that OSHA fulfills its promise to ensure safe workplaces for all American workers.  What would you do?  That’s the question that Michael Silverstein has been tackling for the past several months, and as a George Washington University Professor David Michaels explains, you have a chance to weigh in:

For the last several months, Michael Silverstein has been talking with safety and health activists and professionals around the country, evaluating the work of OSHA over the last 35 years and discussing ways to ensure that OSHA’s promise – a safe workplace for all American workers – is fulfilled.  (Michael, in case you don’t know him, has an extensive background in OSHA policy.  He has served as head of the Washington State OSHA program, Director of Policy for federal OSHA and the UAW’s Assistant Director of Occupational Health and Safety.)

Michael has completed a draft of his paper “Getting Home Safe and Sound?  OSHA at Thirty-Five” and we have posted it on the website of the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy  (SKAPP).

SKAPP began this project last year in order to examine ways we can improve our system of protecting worker health an safety.  With the political changes that occurred in November, it its even more pressing now for us to consider ways to improve our dysfunctional safety and health regulatory system.

So we are attempting an experiment.  We at SKAPP have decided to launch a national electronic discussion of Michael’s paper, and especially its recommendations.  As a forum, we’re using the new blog “The Pump Handle”.  If you go to it you can read a letter from Michael describing the project and by posting a comment, you can participate in the discussion. 

If you have thoughts on how to improve the workings of OSHA, please jump into the discussion (and circulate this information to your members, colleagues and friends).

David Michaels, PhD, MPH
Director, The Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy

I encourage you all – whether you’re a health and safety professional, or a worker, or a family member of an worker injured or killed on the job – to read Michael’s paper and let him know what you think.  As he says (and you all know), OSHA has lots of problems, despite the progress that has been made: However, after 35 years much is left undone.  A worker still becomes injured or ill on the job every 2.5 seconds and these injuries and illnesses have disproportionate, unfair impact in especially high risk industries and among groups of disadvantaged workers.

Most workplaces are inspected so infrequently and most penalties for violations of the OSHAct are so small that most employers have little incentive to pay much attention to OSHA requirements.  Acts of gross negligence or criminal behavior leading to workplace deaths regularly go unpunished.  Employees are discouraged from raising complaints about workplace hazards because the OSHAct provides insufficient protections from discrimination.  And millions of public employees are left without the enforceable protections of the OSHAct entirely.

Long after Congress declared safe and healthful workplaces to be a national priority more attention is paid and more resources are devoted to fish and wildlife protection than worker safety.  Lives on the job are devalued by this violation of a national promise.

Working to earn a living, to support a family, to build the community has been disrespected and dishonored.  We have the technology, the legal framework and the moral capacity to do significantly better.  We can reach higher by making more creative use of the existing provisions in the OSHAct, by strengthening the Act itself, and by taking steps entirely outside the OSHAct framework to ensure that those who contribute their labor for their families and communities are honored by returning home safe and sound every day.

Read Michael Silverstein’s draft paper “Getting Home Safe and Sound? OSHA at Thirty-Five”

Most recently, Health International created the DVD OSHA 35 And Still Alive!, which features interviews with opinion leaders in Occupational Safety and Health from the first three and a half decades of the Occupational Safety and Health Act in the USA. The DVD features conversations with Dr John Howard, Director of NIOSH, CDC, DHHS and was premiered at a NIOSH symposium in Washington DC 2006 to rave reviews.