Saturday, March 12, 2011

Essay on OSHA

Essay on OSHA Regulations

In 1970, The U.S. Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act (amended in 1990), which consolidated a myriad of state and federal rules and laws addressing worker health and safety into one major legislative act. That law created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which is housed in the Department of Labor and headed by an assistant secretary for Safety and Health.

Prior to the passage of this legislation, the rules regarding the safety and health of American workers varied considerably from state to state and across the diversity of agricultural and industrial workplace settings. OSHA's mission was to bring some regularity to safety and health standards, and thereby to save lives, prevent injuries, and protect the health of all 100 million American workers. OSHA's task is to work with the 61/2 million employers affected by the legislation and with counterpart agencies (there are currently 25) at the state level. OSHA receives scientific and technical assistance from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), one of the institutes of the NIH.


In its first 25 years, OSHA claims some credit for the following workplace safety and health improvements: Workplace deaths have been reduced by 50 percent; OSHA's cotton dust standard has virtually reduced brown lung disease in the textile industry; deaths from construction trench cave-ins have declined by 35 percent; and OSHA's lead standard has reduced blood poisoning in battery plant and smelter workers by 67 percent. In industries where OSHA inspections have been focused, there has been an average reduction of injury and illness of 22 percent; where OSHA has been less vigilant, injury and illness has remained at similar levels or has increased. In spite of these improvements, problems remain. About 6,000 American workers die annually from workplace injuries; an estimated 50,000 die from illnesses caused by workplace chemical exposures; and 6 million suffer nonfatal workplace injuries each year.

OSHA undertakes two tasks. It sets regulations deemed necessary for employee safety and health—e.g., machine parts must be guarded, stairways must have handrails, employees must not be exposed to harmful levels of toxic chemicals—and then inspects workplaces to determine compliance. Not surprisingly, the agency has been most successful in setting standards where the causes and effects of injury or illness are easily established and for which there are clear and practicable remedies. Where causes are more ambiguous, where effects show up only decades later, and where there is disagreement among scientists about safety thresholds (as is this case with many chemical exposures), OSHA has encountered stiff resistance from employers and costly legal challenges. Enforcement at millions of workplace settings has been compromised by a relatively small staff of inspectors (2,100) attached to 200 offices across the country.

The work of the agency has also been hampered by the public view that OSHA's rules too often are unnecessarily complex and unreasonable when applied uniformly to the variety of workplace settings. In some quarters, OSHA is viewed as an agency that has lost sight of its primary goal of protecting workers and is instead hopelessly snarled in red tape and excessive paperwork. In an era of weaker labor unions and with government and business elites focused on "downsizing" as a means to enhance American global competitiveness, OSHA has had to rethink its strategies for better compliance. In an effort to encourage employers to develop their own strong and effective health and safety programs, OSHA offers them two options for meeting their obligations under the law: partnership or the usual means of enforcement.

Partnership rewards employers who establish their own comprehensive health and safety programs with the promise of onsite inspections, penalty reductions, and highest priority for assistance when needed. Firms that do not opt for partnership and set up their own programs will face strong and traditional enforcement procedures. An experiment with this approach has been initiated in Maine, where 200 firms with the highest incidence of injuries were offered the choice of partnership or consensual enforcement mechanisms. All but two chose partnership, and the success to date has encouraged OSHA to develop ways to nationalize the "Maine 200" concept. OSHA has also initiated a process to streamline and rationalize current regulations so that they are up-to-date and sensible for today's workplace environment.

Moreover, efforts are underway to reduce paperwork requirements in order to focus on safety and health results, not red tape. Time will tell whether these changes improve the public's confidence in OSHA's ability to protect worker safety and health.—T.I.

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