The American workplace has changed dramatically over the last two decades, and so have the inherent hazards for workers. New, bigger, more powerful equipment has come online. New chemicals and other toxic substances have come into routine use. New production and construction methods have been introduced.
Created in 1971, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, OSHA, is charged with protecting workers in the workplace by adopting regulations on a range of health and safety topics and enforcing those regulations, even to the point of pursuing criminal violations of the law. In its early years, OSHA aggressively attacked the myriad safety problems in American workplaces, to great effect – fewer injuries and fewer deaths. But the war on regulation launched during the Reagan years began a steady decline in OSHA’s ambition and effectiveness, and progress preventing workplace injuries has stopped.
Today, OSHA casts an exceedingly small shadow on the American workplace. It has been starved of the resources it needs to keep up with regulatory challenges and burdened with analytical requirements by adverse court decisions and congressional action. The result is that new safety standards can take a decade or more to implement, and enforcement of existing standards is sporadic at best.
On average, more than 10 U.S. workers die every day on the job, the result of workplace accidents or exposures. Hundreds of thousands more are injured or made ill. Those numbers are far better than they once were, but nowhere near as low as they could and should be, and OSHA is hobbled in its ability to develop and enforce needed safeguards. A policy manual from CPR aims to help state and local groups succeed where OSHA cannot.
As its name suggests, the Small Business Administration Office of Advocacy is there to represent the interests of small businesses. But in many ways, it functions as a tool of large industry, as in the case of its efforts to undermine an OSHA standard to protect workers from deadly silica dust. Read CPR's Issue Alert.
How safe is the food we eat? How safe and effective are the drugs we take and the medical devices we use? These are questions one might expect the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food & Drug Administration to answer with quick and reassuring replies. Not so. CPR Member Scholars have written extensively on the topic.
For many Americans, the term "small business" conjures up images of mom-and-pop grocery stores, garage-based Internet start-ups and the like. They're out there, creating jobs and inventing tomorrow's commerce, but Washington lobbyists have a different idea of "small."
OSHA's inability to keep up with mounting workplace hazards is no accident. Opponents of regulation and those who would rather preserve profit than worker safety have powerful voices in Washington lobbying on their behalf. But standing up to such big-moneyed interests is OSHA's job, and American workers deserve nothing less.
Winning Safer Workplaces
More than 4,000 Americans die in workplace accidents or from workplace exposures every year, and workplace injuries or illnesses number in the hundreds of thousands, leaving many with permanent disabilities.Those numbers alone are evidence that more must be done to protect the nation's workers. Mindful that OSHA has been rendered slow to respond and comparatively toothless, CPR Member Scholars often look to states and localities to strengthen protections for workers. With that in mind, CPR Scholars and staff collaborated in 2014 on Winning Safer Workplaces: A Manual for State and Local Policy Reform, and then followed up with a series of webinars for stakeholders. Read more about the effort.
In January 2013, CPR Member Scholars focused on an emerging worker safety problem: industry's growing reliance on "contingent labor" — day laborers working construction jobs or hotel housekeepers on temporary contracts, for example. According to At the Company’s Mercy: Protecting Contingent Workers from Unsafe Working Conditions, by Member Scholars Martha McCluskey, Thomas McGarity and Sidney Shapiro, and Senior Policy Analyst Matthew Shudtz, because employers who hire workers on a contingent basis do not directly pay for workers’ compensation and health insurance, they lack sufficient incentives to eliminate workplace hazards. Specifically, companies using continent workers are likely to be insulated from the insurance premium increases resulting from the costs of workers’ injuries, and as a result, they are immune to the financial incentives to eliminate on-the-job hazards.
The white paper looks at worker safety threats in four realms in which contingent work is growing or already common: construction, farm work, warehouse labor hired indirectly through staffing agencies, and hotel housekeepers working through temp firms. In each of these examples, employment can be contingent on short-term fluctuations in demand. Too often, workers in these fields see little job security, low wages, minimal opportunities for advancement, and, all too often, hazardous working conditions. Moreover, employer-based health insurance is a rarity for contingent workers. When hazards lead to work-related injuries, the contingent nature of the employment relationship can exacerbate the negative consequences for the injured worker and society. The worker might quickly find herself out of a job and, depending on the severity of the injury, the prospects for new employment slim. In the absence of health insurance, the costs of treating injuries can be financially devastating, and are typically shifted to the public at large.
More CPR work on Worker Safety:
Texas City Refinery Blast Anniversary. Read Rena Steinzor's op-ed in the Houston Chronicle on lessons -- learned and otherwise -- from the BP Texas City oil refinery explosion in 2005.
Wayne Farms Fine. In October 2014, OSHA handed down a $102,000 fine to a poultry slaughterhouse for a variety of worker safety violations. Read CPR Senior Policy Analyst Matthew Shudtz' statement on the significance of the step.
CPR's June 2011 OSHA Conference. See pictures from CPR's June 30, 2011 conference, “A New Progressive Agenda for Occupational Safety and Health,” bringing together leaders of the occupational health and safety movement, including OSHA Administrator David Michaels.
'OSHA Listens' Presentation. On March 4, 2010, CPR Policy Analyst Matthew Shudtz made a presentation from Member Scholar Rena Steinzor and himself to an "OSHA Listens" session, chaired by OSHA Administrator David Michaels. The presentation drew on “Workers at Risk: Regulatory Dysfunction at OSHA,” CPR White Paper 1003, that they co-authored with CPR Member Scholars Thomas McGarity and Sidney Shapiro. Read the presentation.