OSHA's First Year Under Obama: Shaking Off the Cobwebs

by James Goodwin

This post is the sixth in a series on the new CPR report Obama’s Regulators: A First-Year Report Card.

During the Bush Administration, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) became a regulatory wasteland. Political interference, outdated laws, and chronic underfunding reduced the agency’s regulatory output to a mere trickle. For example, in the last 10 years, OSHA has issued comprehensive regulations for only two chemicals; in total, it has established legally enforceable exposure limits for fewer than 200 of the 3,000 most widely used industrial chemicals. Outdated laws and inadequate resources have also hindered OSHA’s ability to inspect workplaces and enforce worker safety regulations.

The Obama Administration faced a difficult challenge in trying to reawaken this vital protector agency from its dormant state. By and large, the Administration succeeded in placing OSHA in a promising upward trajectory this past year, strengthening its inspection and enforcement efforts. But it made little progress in terms of launching an affirmative regulatory agenda.

In the past year, OSHA began reforming enforcement programs that have proven ineffective, such as the Enhanced Enforcement Program (a program intended to focus enforcement on the worst offenders) and the Voluntary Protection Program (a program intended to encourage more cooperative approaches to enforcement and inspections for certain industries). OSHA launched a number of new initiatives that will improve its ability to inspect workplaces and enforce workplace safety and health regulations. One such promising effort is OSHA’s National Emphasis Program for recordkeeping requirements. Under this program, the agency would conduct targeted inspections at worksites in high-hazard industries that have low numbers of reported injuries and illnesses, and then appropriately enforce regulatory requirements whenever employers are found to be underreporting injuries and illnesses. The overall objective of this program is to assess the accuracy of injury and illness data recorded by employers, so that OSHA can determine how to reform existing regulations and inspection and enforcement programs to ensure that employers keep better records.

Unfortunately, OSHA did not make similar progress on the rulemaking side of its statutory mission. Rather than taking the kind of bold regulatory action that is necessary to protect workers from unsafe and unhealthy workplaces, the agency continues to delay development and completion of new rules. Perhaps no rule better exemplifies this unacceptable delay than the one OSHA has been working on to set stronger safety standards for construction cranes and derricks. The current standard has not been updated since it was written nearly 40 years ago. OSHA has been sitting on a rule to update this standard for more than a year, even though it was developed through a consensus process involving both workers and representatives of the construction industry. The agency estimates that this new rule would save dozens of lives a year, and prevent hundreds of serious injuries. Nevertheless, OSHA inexplicably refused to publish the final rule in 2009. Instead, in December, the agency announced that it would likely delay publication of the final rule until at least July of 2010. Even though the new rule seems like a slam dunk, OSHA continues to take more time.

Of course, no one expected OSHA to transform into a fully reinvigorated agency overnight. Nevertheless, the agency should have made more progress on developing and completing new regulations this past year—particularly given President Obama’s promise to bring back to Washington an active government that is willing and able to protect people who are unable to protect themselves.

The Obama Administration has succeeded in pointing OSHA in the right direction, but more work must be done to ensure that this crucial agency reaches its destination. The Obama Administration needs to do more this next year to restore OSHA’s confidence and its sense of mission, and work with Congress to enhance OSHA’s legal authority. Only then will OSHA be able to get back to the business of protecting the health and safety of America’s workforce.

© 2016 The Center for Progressive Reform