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Leo W. Gerard

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End the Delays Deadly to Workers

Posted: 04/23/2012 7:59 am

Wear black on Saturday. It is Workers' Memorial Day, a time devoted to commemorating those killed on the job.

A month later, on soldiers' Memorial Day, the nation will recognize those who sacrificed their lives for American ideals, for a nation's freedom. That ultimate gift is given in most cases valiantly and voluntarily. No one, however, volunteers to sacrifice their life for corporate profit. Every day in workplaces across this country, the lives of 12 workers are taken, not given.

The shield Congress erected in 1970 to protect workers -- the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) -- is mutilated from relentless attacks by corporations and their battering ram -- the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The delays in OSHA rule-making that corporate carping achieves cost workers their lives. Congress must intervene to restore OSHA's power to act swiftly.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) detailed the delays in a report issued last week titled, "Multiple Challenges Lengthen OSHA's Standard Setting." The GAO found it takes OSHA longer than seven years to issue a new standard. In one case, it was 19 years. And it's getting worse. It took 70 percent longer to finalize standards in the 1990s than it did in the 1980s, and another 30 percent longer in the 2000s.

The GAO determined that this was a result of increasing demands on OSHA. These occurred as corporations sued to stop enforcement and new mandates for review of proposed rules were stacked on top of existing ones. The GAO said defenders of the delays argue that the layers of obligations balance worker protections with employer costs.

So the very corporations and Chamber of Commerce that constantly deride government red tape demand it for this special case -- to delay implementation of rules to protect workers. And this is their justification: Corporate profits trump worker lives.

There's no doubt that the rules OSHA implements actually save lives. Members of my union, the United Steelworkers (USW), are alive today because of OSHA's lockout/tagout rule. The GAO noted this in its report.

The lockout/tagout standard, established in 1989, requires corporations to install devices and adopt procedures that prevent workers from accidently switching on big machines while co-workers are cleaning or repairing them. The GAO wrote about this rule:

"In a 2000 review, OSHA attributed a 55 percent reduction in machinery-related fatalities at 10 steel-producing companies between 1990 and 1997 to the provisions in this standard."

The quicker such a regulation is implemented, the more worker lives saved. But now, for OSHA, "quick" is anything less than seven years and nine months. For standards limiting exposure to some highly-toxic substances, including silica and beryllium, exposed workers have waited much longer than seven years. OSHA has been working on a silica standard for 15 years and a new beryllium standard for 12.

Beryllium is so dangerous that no safe level has ever been established. It causes a devastating lung disorder called chronic beryllium disease (CBD). It is so hazardous that office workers in factories where it's used and family members of workers who handle it can be struck down by tiny particles carried on shoes or pant cuffs. This year, my union and Materion Brush, the only U.S. producer of pure beryllium metal, recommended a new standard that is 90 percent lower than the current limit.

That, however, followed years of obstruction by industry officials. This is typical of corporations fighting standards that will save lives but cost money. They strangle proposed standards by suing and by entangling them in red tape. The lawsuits, the GAO report says, mean OSHA must provide extraordinary levels of proof. And the suits have restrained OSHA from using its full powers to protect workers.

For example, theoretically, OSHA has authority to issue emergency temporary standards. OSHA hasn't done that in 29 years, despite 23 requests from workers or health officials. That's because of industry lawsuits. In the 13 years from the agency's creation until 1984, OSHA used the authority nine times, but five of those orders were invalidated or frozen by industry lawsuits.

One of the nine was for asbestos. In 1983, OSHA issued an emergency temporary standard lowering the exposure limit for this cancer-causing material. Using mathematical projections from long-term epidemiological studies, OSHA estimated that the six-month-long emergency rule would prevent at least 80 eventual asbestos-related deaths.

The industry sued to stop implementation of the emergency standard, and a judge killed the OSHA effort. The court contended the agency's projection was inadequate to establish grave risk. And it said if OSHA intended to use such estimates, then a new standard based on them should not be enforced until after public notice and comment.

That would delay implementation of a lower exposure standard, which, when dealing with toxic substances like asbestos and beryllium, costs lives. But industry won. And who knows how many workers suffered early deaths across the country.

Last Workers' Memorial Day, Robert Stubblefield, 66, a member of my union, was killed on the job at Republic Special Metals in Ohio.

Over the next 12 months, 34 more Steelworkers died, one every 10 days. They made glass, tires, cement, aluminum and steel. They refined oil and mined potash, platinum and palladium. They logged forests and constructed earthmovers.

They produced the products that build North America. They should not die for that. No worker should die for a job.

Traditionally, Memorial Day is the first day of the season when women wear white -- white shoes, white purses, white hats.

On Workers Memorial Day, Saturday, April 28, wear black for the workers who perished on the job last year. Hold loved ones close and hope that the delays imposed on OSHA won't cause for another worker's family the suffering endured by Robert Stubblefield's widow, five children and nine grandchildren.

 

Follow Leo W. Gerard on Twitter: www.twitter.com/uswblogger

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