Honoring Workers with Stronger Standards and Safeguards

April 28 marked Workers’ Memorial Day, a day to remember and honor those who have died on the job. Workers’ Memorial Day also serves as a reminder of how much progress has been made in protecting Americans at work since the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSH Act) and how much work remains to ensure all Americans are safe at work.

In the forty-plus years since the OSH Act was passed, our country has made significant progress in improving the health and safety of working Americans. Injury and fatality rates are down substantially, although there are still far too many preventable accidents and illness in the workplace. In 1970, more than 14,000 workers died on the job; in 2011, 4,609 workers were killed at work, and an estimated 50,000 died from occupational illnesses. Because of comprehensive Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards, exposure to known killers, such as lead, asbestos, and cotton dust, have been dramatically reduced; grain dust explosions occur less frequently; and workers are less likely to get caught in equipment as it unexpectedly starts up. OSHA’s recent emphasis on protecting workers who report health and safety hazards from retaliation is long overdue.

Unfortunately, OSHA is limited in what it can accomplish, and occupational illnesses and injuries still cost an estimated $250-300 billion each year. Too many workers are not protected by OSHA at all. Much has been written lately about the tragic fire and explosion at the West Fertilizer plant in Texas that killed at least 15, many first responders, and the lack of OSHA inspections at the facility. In addition, the OSH Act does not apply to public employees, flight attendants and rail workers, or employees of Department of Energy contractors working at nuclear facilities. None of the first responders who died in West, TX were covered by OSHA.

OSHA does not have the resources to routinely inspect most workplaces. OSHA’s annual budget is $535 million, and it employs only 2,000 inspectors, but is responsible for ensuring safety at more than 8 million worksites. According to the AFL-CIO’s annual Death on the Job report, given current resources, it would take OSHA more than 130 years to inspect every workplace in America.

Even when it does inspect, OSHA standards are woefully out of date, and it seems unable to adopt new standards. Most OSHA standards were adopted shortly after the OSH Act was passed in 1970 and are based on voluntary consensus standards from the 1960s. When OSHA seeks to update those out-of-date standards or protect workers from unregulated hazards, on average, it takes more than seven years to do so, according to the Government Accountability Office. And throughout those seven years, the Small Business Administration’s Office of Advocacy and the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) may be working to weaken exposure limits.

OSHA has been trying to comprehensively regulate silica exposures since the 1970s. Silica dust – long recognized as causing debilitating lung disease – is now widely recognized as causing lung cancer. Expanded reliance on hydraulic fracturing to increase natural gas production exposes thousands of workers to excessive silica levels. OSHA has drafted a proposal to protect these and other workers from the dangers of silica, but its proposal has been stuck at OIRA for more than two years. This delay has cost at least 120 workers their lives.

Moreover, OSHA cannot assess penalties large enough to really deter violators of workplace safety standards. OSHA may assess only a $7,000 fine for a serious safety violation – one that was deemed likely to cause death or serious physical injury. That amount has not been increased since 1991. And criminal prosecutions for OSHA violations are rare. Criminal charges may be filed only when an employee dies as the result of a willful violation of an OSHA standard. An employer who commits a willful violation that kills a worker can only be charged with a misdemeanor; the penalty for harassing a wild burro on federal land is higher than that.

In honor of Workers’ Memorial Day, let's resolve to do better. The Protecting America’s Workers Act, introduced by Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Rep. George Miller (D-CA) (S. 665/H.R. 1648), is a step in the right direction. The legislation would expand and strengthen workplace safety law. It amends the OSH Act to cover more workers, increases civil and criminal penalties so they are large enough to deter violations, better protects employees who report safety and health hazards from retaliation from their employers, and ensures that serious safety violations are corrected promptly, even while employers challenge them.

Our basic workplace safety law has not been updated for more than 40 years, and it needs an overhaul. OSHA should be given the resources to effectively monitor workplace hazards and protect workers. The haphazard, incomplete system of workplace safeguards currently in place in this country must be strengthened and better aligned to provide better oversight of facilities like the West Texas Fertilizer Company. It should not take a tragic explosion for us to resolve to do better by American workers.

Editor's note: This article has been updated since its original publication date.

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