The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) mission — as stated on its website — is to “assure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women.”
However, the Washington Post reported today that for the last eight years OSHA has been doing anything but accomplishing this mission. Instead, the agency has become “mired in inaction,” creating only a “legacy of unregulation” — all to the benefit of America’s corporations.
As the Las Vegas Sun recently noted, the Bush administration’s “only real priority has been to prevent the agency from doing its job.” In fact, in just its first two years, the administration “pulled 22 items off the agency’s regulatory agenda, its working list of proposed safety and health rules.”
During Bush’s tenure, OSHA officials issued 86 percent fewer rules or regulations “termed economically significant” than they did under President Clinton. And while these officials have been sitting on their hands, as many as 13 million people — “or nearly a tenth of the American workforce” — are injured on the job each year.
Part of the problem, as the Post reported, is that under Bush, career OSHA officials were shut out by political appointees, and thus “strategic choices were frequently made without input from [the agency's] experienced hands.” This has turned the agency into “a bureaucratic quagmire, where regulations take a decade or more to make and where priorities consistently shift.”
Symbolical of the agency’s shortcomings under Bush, Edwin G. Foulke Jr., a former Bush fundraiser appointed to head OSHA in 2006, “acquired a reputation inside the Labor Department as a man who literally fell asleep on the job“:
His top aides said they rustled papers, wore attention-getting garb, pounded the table for emphasis or gently kicked his leg, all to keep him awake. But, if these tactics failed, sometimes they just continued talking as if he were awake.
A key goal for the next administration should be to get OSHA back on the side of working people. For starters, this means putting teeth into the agency’s safety enforcement mechanisms. As David Madland of the Center for American Progress Action Fund has noted, “Many worker-protection fines are so low — even for the worst violations — that irresponsible employers have begun factoring them in as part of their cost of doing business rather than complying with labor laws”:
In 2007, the median OSHA final penalty for violations that caused a fatality was only $3,675.16. OSHA is one of only five government entities that are exempt from the Federal Civil Penalties Inflation Adjustment Act, which directs and authorizes agencies to regularly adjust their penalties for inflation. These civil money penalties were last adjusted by Congress in 1990 and are not indexed to inflation.
OSHA — and the Labor Department as a whole — has neglected working Americans for the last eight years, harming not only individual workers, but also costing the American taxpayer $108 billion a year. There is no reason for this willful apathy to continue.