Despite the enormous loss of lives and millions of serious injuries and illness caused by workplace hazards, the Bush administration continues to blatantly disregard its legal obligation to curtail the needless dying and suffering.
Past experience guarantees that unless the administration acts swiftly and decisively, the number of workers dying on the job this year will reach almost 6,000. More than two million will be seriously injured. Another 50,000 or more will die from cancer, lung and heart ailments and other occupational diseases caused by exposure to toxic substances.
Think of it: That’s an average of at least 16 workers killed and nearly 5,500 badly hurt on each and every day, plus 135 or more dying daily from job-related illness.
The financial toll will also be high: more than $3 billion in health care expenses and other costs to employers and workers, such as lost wages and production.
Much of that could be avoided. What’s needed most – and badly needed — is strengthening the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the two related acts that cover mine safety and the agencies that administer the laws. For more than three decades, the agencies have been the only real tools for protecting workers from physical harm. Yet they’ve been woefully underfunded, woefully understaffed and woefully lax in enforcing the law – especially under President Bush.
The agencies are currently run by political appointees of Bush, many of them former executives from the industries they’re supposed to regulate. They have blocked, withdrawn or weakened dozens of safety rules and stopped development of others recommended by safety and health experts. They’ve discontinued safety education and training programs and worked with Bush and Republican leaders in Congress to cut their own budgets by millions of dollars.
The agencies have largely abandoned on-site inspections in favor of a “voluntary compliance strategy.” That means taking the word of employers that they have voluntarily complied with those rules that remain on the books and providing little protection to workers who face employer retaliation for challenging their word. Fines for violations are in any case rarely more than token amounts. Even rarer are criminal charges against employers whose willful violations lead to injury, illness or death.
President Bush’s obvious attempts to help his corporate allies avoid the expense of making working life safer for their employees began very soon after he took office. In one of his first acts, he signed GOP-sponsored legislation that repealed regulations — enacted under President Clinton after a decade of research — that covered the most numerous of all occupational hazards.
The regulations were designed to protect computer operators, factory and construction workers, meat and poultry processors, hospital and restaurant employees, supermarket clerks and others who risk serious neck and back problems, chronically sore arms and wrists and other “repetitive motion injuries.” They account for more than 60 percent of all on-the-job injuries, some of them permanently disabling.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration – OSHA — has even blocked a proposed rule that would require employers to provide free protective equipment such as goggles, hard hats and gloves that thousands of low-wage workers can’t afford.
Workers at all wage levels are at increasingly greater risk because of OSHA’s inaction, but especially vulnerable are the generally lower paid immigrants who have become so important to our economy. They typically are hired for some of the most dangerous jobs, but hesitate to speak out against unsafe conditions for fear of deportation or other retaliation. New studies show that many of their injuries, and many injuries of others, are not even reported.
The number of workplaces and workers has increased substantially since passage of the job safety laws, as has the number and variety of hazards that need regulation. Meeting that need would cost money – money that the Bush administration and its allies are adamantly unwilling to spend.
Larger job safety budgets aren’t all that’s needed. There must be much greater oversight of particularly dangerous workplaces and new and tougher regulations if necessary. Penalties for violations have to be increased, workers granted strict whistle-blower protections and programs created to allow them to identify hazards and suggest ways to avoid them. Employers should be required to provide safety gear . The laws should be extended to farmworkers, local and state government employees and other groups not currently covered.
Bills to carry out those and other reforms have long languished in Congress. But now that worker-friendly Democrats control both houses, there’s a good chance that at least some of the bills will pass. That might not quite carry out the promise of the Occupational Safety and Health Act to guarantee a safe job for every American worker, but it would come light-years closer than George W. Bush has taken us.
Copyright (c) 2007 Dick Meister, a San Francisco-based writer who has covered labor and political issues for more than four decades as a print, broadcast and online reporter, editor and commentator. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com.