A Big Job, on a Tiny Budget

Originally published on Room for Debate

The biggest problem illustrated by the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Tex., is not that OSHA is focusing on the wrong threats, but that its hands are tied and that it does not have the resources or the support to ensure that our nation’s workplaces are safe. The explosion at the West Fertilizer Company illustrates why Congress should act swiftly to strengthen our main workplace safety law so OSHA has the authority and the resources to protect workers.

OSHA has too few resources to do the job assigned to it; it can afford to inspect each facility, on average, once every 131 years.

OSHA has too few resources to do the job assigned to it. This year, OSHA has a budget of $535 million to protect workers at over 8 million workplaces. OSHA conducts about 40,000 inspections each year. Together with state OSHA programs, it has 2,000 inspectors; with those resources, federal OSHA can conduct an inspection of every facility only once every 131 years.

OSHA must prioritize its inspections based on available data, as it tries to focus on the most dangerous facilities. OSHA does emphasize the most dangerous chemical facilities, but West Fertilizer discounted the threat of fire or explosion at the facility, placing it in a risk category too low to prompt an inspection. Under the guise of protecting small business, Congress has barred OSHA from conducting routine inspections at workplaces with fewer than 10 employees in industries with low injury rates, a limitation that may have prevented OSHA from inspecting the West facility.

Even when it does inspect, OSHA uses out-of-date standards that cover so few hazards that the West Fertilizer Company might have been in compliance with OSHA rules. We just don’t know yet. OSHA’s regulations on anhydrous ammonia are decades old, and it has no rules covering ammonium nitrate. Employers are not required to report the presence of dangerous products at the work site. Thanks to the anti-regulatory climate in Washington, and the regulatory hoops OSHA must pass through before it can adopt new standards, the Government Accountability Office reported last year that, on average, OSHA takes over seven years to adopt a new workplace standard.

The West Fertilizer Company explosion illustrates that our main workplace safety law is too limited and out of date to protect Americans from harm, and it must be updated to safeguard workers across the country.

© 2013 The New York Times

Image by flickr user The Bay Area's News Station, used under a Creative Commons license

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