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Industry Influence Undermines OSHA’s Mission

During an appearance on CBS’s 60 Minutes last night, Ed Foulke, head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration — the agency charged with overseeing workplace safety — snubbed the recommendations of the federal government’s Chemical Safety Board and conceded that the agency would not adopt a “combustible dust standard” to prevent dust fires at the nation’s “sugar, corn or metal” factories.

Despite the deaths of 133 workers since 1980, Foulke maintained that sporadic inspections of factories and voluntary enforcement of safety regulations could still protect employees from dust explosions:

Foulke has 1,029 inspectors, and told 60 Minutes about 50 of them have already had extensive dust training. He says OSHA sends inspectors to companies with the greatest risk of a dust explosion. And it turns out there are a lot of those. “You’ve identified 30,000 workplaces that are at risk. How many of those will you inspect over the next year?” Pelley asks.

“Well, approximately 300 or more,” Foulke says. “If you do 300 a year, it’ll take you 100 years to inspect all those places that you’ve identified,” Pelley remarks.

“We’re not gonna get in every work site every year. It would be physically impossible from a monetary standpoint and on a personnel standpoint to get in every facility once a year. Or even every five years,” Foulke says.

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The administration’s budget cuts and deregulatory approach to workplace-safety standards have indeed made it “physically impossible” to inspect at-risk factories. In fact, the Bush administration has issued the fewest standards in the agency’s history and has instead adopted a “voluntary compliance strategy,” gently nudging businesses to adopt stricter workplace safety rules.Since 2001, Bush administration has “eased regulations or weakened enforcement of rules”:

OSHA’s budget has been cut each year President Bush has been in office.

– Since reaching an all-time high in FY 2001, OSHA’s overall budget has fallen more than five percent under Bush.

Funds appropriated for enforcement activity fell almost 8 percent from FY 2001 to FY 2008.

– The budget for compliance assistance, programs which allow federal regulators to work with businesses to promote voluntary compliance has increased.

Smaller budgets have weakened the agency’s inspection capabilities. According to the 60 Minutes investigation, “of all the dust explosions in the last two years, OSHA missed the problem almost every time”:

60 Minutes went through OSHA’s own records and discovered that of 67 factories hit by dust explosions, only one was cited by OSHA inspectors for a dust hazard before the blast. In one case, a plant exploded only three days after a visit by an OSHA inspector, who found no problem with dust.

The agency’s hands-off attitude towards enforcement comes from the top down. As the New York Times reported last year, Ed Foulke “has a history of opposing regulations produced by the agency he now leads.” Before coming to Washington in 2006, Foulke worked “for a law firm that advises companies on how to avoid union organizing” and “led a successful effort to weaken the agency’s enforcement authority.”

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As head of the agency, Foulke is doing just that, skirting the consensus of safety experts to ensure that industries are not pestered with regulatory standards.