THE BLOG

Workers Need a Robust OSHA for Their Survival

05/26/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

April 30, 2008, two days after Workers Memorial Day last spring, a mammoth steel girder crushed to death a 61-year-old crane repairman who worked at ArcelorMittal in Burns Harbor, Ind. A 33-year-veteran of the mill, the member of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 6787 left behind a wife and two sons.

He became one of the 21 to die that day at work, the 21 who die each day at work. To reduce that daily toll, to make Workers Memorial Day less memorable, the U.S. Labor Department and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration must be properly funded and empowered.

The 5,680 workplace deaths each year are called "accidents" in hushed tones in funeral homes when widows or widowers speak of what befell the loved ones they'd kissed as they left for work, never suspecting they'd never return. But they're not accidents if the employer failed to supply safety equipment, sufficient workers to safely perform the task, or, generally, a safe working environment.

Employers must provide safe workplaces. For those who don't understand that moral requirement, Congress established a legal mandate with the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. Under OSHA, the Department of Labor created regulations and enforcement mechanisms "to promote the safety and health of America's working men and women."

August 15, 2008, a 41-year-old electrical apprentice from Superior, Ariz. was fatally electrocuted while replacing the ballast in a 480-volt flood light on the edge of the Asarco LLC Ray Mine copper pit in Kearny, Ariz. He'd trained for a year and 20 weeks as an electrician, but for 13 years before that had worked at the mine as a member of the USW, and his former Steelworkers local union president, Celestino Flores, said of him, "He was such a hard worker. . . Such a good guy." The U.S. Department of Labor cited Asarco, saying, "The accident occurred because management policies and controls were inadequate and failed to ensure that the electrical circuit was deenergized, locked-out, tagged, and tested before work was performed." But the Labor Department never imposed fines, and after all the mine's electricians received training, it rescinded the citation.

Something is wrong. Over the past eight years, the Bush Administration managed to emasculate many regulatory agencies, including the Labor Department and OSHA. The federal OSHA program has 570 fewer inspectors today than it did in 1980, for example, and its budget of $486 million for 2008 amounted to only $3.89 per worker.

An Office of Inspector General audit report describes one terrible result of this government-shriveling process - additional deaths at workplaces with histories of deaths. The March 31, 2009 report carries an intimidating but also chilling title: "Employers with Reported Fatalities were not Always Properly Identified and Inspected under OSHA's Enhanced Enforcement Program."

That special enforcement program (EEP) is for "employers indifferent to their obligations" under the OSHA act. In the audit, the Inspector General found that under the Bush Administration, OSHA was not properly identifying employers for enhanced enforcement. And even when it did, OSHA failed to take proper action. For example, in 29 cases, it "did not take any of the appropriate enhanced enforcement actions. Sixteen of the 29 employers subsequently had 20 fatalities." In 14 of those, the violations were similar to the initial ones. But the employer suffered no OSHA penalty the first time. The violation recurred. And another worker died.

"While we cannot conclude that enhanced enforcement would prevent subsequent fatalities, full and proper application of EEP procedures may have deterred and abated workplace hazards at the worksites of 45 employers where 58 fatalities occurred," the auditors wrote.

January 4, 2009, a 46-year-old municipal worker died of drowning and blunt force trauma when he apparently was caught in a conveyor system and dragged into a pit at the Galveston, Texas waste water treatment plant. A member of USW Local 13-1, he worked for the City of Galveston for a decade. The co-founder of the Galveston Hurricanes and the team's coach for 14 years, he left behind a widow and three sons.

Tuesday, April 28, is this year's Workers Memorial Day. The date marks passage of OSHA, which clearly needs to be enforced so fewer bells are tolled on this day to commemorate dead workers and so fewer workers die ignominiously in waste water treatment plants. Two weeks ago, on the deadline for filing federal income taxes, tea bag protesters cavorted across the country at the behest of conservative talk show hosts. Still conservatives are trying to shrink government, end regulation, strangle enforcement. For American workers, who depend on OSHA for their lives, smaller is perilous. For their very survival, workers need robust regulation immediately.

February 2, 2009,
a tracked timber-loading crane ran over and crushed a 65-year-old crane operator at International Paper in Augusta, Ga. A 43-year veteran of the plant, he'd been scheduled to be off that day but went in anyway when called and worked a job not normally his. He left behind a wife, two children and five grandchildren, all of whom had hoped to see him retire next year. A member of USW Local 983, he was, ironically, EMS trained, functioned as a first responder for International Paper and taught CPR.