« | Main | Happy Labor Day »

September 06, 2004

Bush's War on Workplace Safety

If I were a Kerry campaign strategist, I'd make up a million copies of that Times story, put a label on it inspired by the one found on cigarette boxes: "Warning: Voting Republican can cause serious risks to your health." Then I'd hire an aircraft to drop them over the length and breadth of West Virginia's coal country.

David Rossie, Binghamton, NY Press & Sun-Bulletin,

Rossie is referring to a recent New York Times investigative article describing and all-too-familiar theme of the Bush administration: the selling of workers' interests - in this case their very health and lives - to the administration’s corporate allies. The Times details how, while two or three coal miners are killed every month in mining accidents and hundreds continue to die each year of Black Lung disease, workplace health & safety and environmental regulations are weakened by government officials who are former executives and lobbyists of mining companies that are major contributors of campaign funds to the Republican party.

But the Times report on selling out coal miners is only small part of the story of the Bush administration's war against the safety and health of American workers.

Only a week after the mine industry article, the New York Times and Washington Post published articles on the same day describing how the Bush administration, through almost unnoticed changes in regulations, have made OSHA, MSHA and other government agencies charged with protecting our health and safety more friendly to business interests and more hostile to workers' safety, consumer safety and the environment.

None of this is new to anyone who has been following the grand themes and secret moves of the Bush administration over the past three and a half years. In fact, the very first major piece of legislation signed by George W. Bush in March 2001 was the repeal of OSHA's ergonomics standard -- the first time in OSHA's 30-year history that an existing workplace safety and health standard had been rescinded.

Rolling, Rolling, Rolling Back Regulations...

The ergonomics standard was only the first of many regulatory rollbacks of the Bush administration. During Bush's first two years in office, OSHA abandoned work on 21 standards. The administration withdrew a standard to protect workers against tuberculosis, despite a recommendation by the National Institute of Medicine that the standard be issued. And the administration has stalled another standard ready to be issued at the end of the Clinton administration, that would have required employees to pay for employees' personal protective equipment, such as gloves and boots.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration and the Republican congress have adopted measures to undermine the science behind workplace health and safety (and environmental) standards by downgrading the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and implementing the Data Quality Act which gives industry new tools to challenge new (and old) protections.

As a substitute for mandatory, enforceable standards, OSHA has significantly expanded its voluntary activities in an effort to transform the agency from an enforcement body to an advisory organization. Alliances with industry associations are the newest program developed under the Bush administration as a substitute for issuing enforceable standards. While OSHA has engaged in voluntary activities since the Reagan administration, Bush's Alliances are the first time that labor unions have been almost completely excluded.

A recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) study found that while participants in the voluntary programs reported them to be successful, no one was collecting any comprehensive data that would enable OSHA or the GAO to assess the real effectiveness of the program. Furthermore, the GAO warns, OSHA's planned expansion of these unproven programs threatens to cut further into OSHA's already inadequate enforcement budget.

Enforcing Safe Workplaces

An area in critical need of federal intervention is the growing workplace fatality rate among immigrant workers, particularly Hispanics. A recent Associated Press investigation showed that in the mid-190's, Mexican workers were about 30 percent more likely to die in the workplace than native-born workers; now they are about 80 percent more likely to die.

Yet instead of addressing the issue head on, Bush's Department of Labor recently held a one-day Hispanic Summit in Orlando that served primarily as a press opportunity to give away money to Hispanic organizations in the battleground state of Florida. Unions and community groups who work closely with immigrant workers were not invited and even NIOSH dropped its co-sponsorship because it was so frustrated with DOL's refusal to invite grass-roots organizations to discuss the problems and work collectively on developing solutions. In fact the only sponsors of the Summit were two Bush-backing Hispanic business associations.

Of increasing concern, especially if George W. Bush is re-elected, is the fate of OSHA's budget and enforcement capability. There are currently 2,240 federal and state OSHA inspectors responsible for enforcing the law in 8.1 million workplaces. According to an AFL-CIO analysis, at its current staffing and inspection levels, it would take federal OSHA 106 years to inspect each workplace under its jurisdiction just once.

Labor observers fear that planned across-the-board budget cuts will further shrink OSHA's pie, while growing voluntary activities take ever-larger slices away from enforcement and new standards.

In addition to the low probability that any given workplace will ever be inspected, OSHA's penalty structure remains a laughing stock. A hard-hitting New York Times series at the end of 2003 revealed that 93 percent of all fatalities caused by willful violations of OSHA standards are not prosecuted as criminal violations. In other words, knowingly putting a worker into a situation where he or she is killed almost never results in a penalty worse that fines which often amount to a few thousand dollars and rarely more than $100,000 even to large companies. Despite bills proposed by Senator Jon Corzine (D-NJ) and Congressman Major Owens (D-NY) that would make it easier for OSHA to impose criminal penalties and jail time on employers for willful violations of OSHA standards that result in the death of a worker, the Bush administration has declared that it sees no need to change the law.

What Is to be done?

Almost 6,000 workers were killed in workplace accidents in 2002 - far more Americans than were killed on September 11, 2001 and (so far) in the war in Iraq combined. Another 50,000 - 60,000 workers die each year from occupational disease caused by asbestos, pesticides, solvents and other chemicals. Yet no Bush speech on the economy is complete without trashing "regulations" that allegedly impede economic growth.

So, why aren't the Democrats making Bush's attacks on workplace safety and health major campaign issues, especially in blue collar areas that suffer the most traditional workplace hazards, or among health care and service sector worker who suffer the most ergonomics injuries?

Clearly, there are other, more important "crimes" of the Bush administration to focus on -- the misguided war in Iraq, unemployment, tax cuts for the walthy, lower living standards and the loss of pensions and overtime to name just a few.

But almost everyone who votes also goes to work, many in construction sites, factories, hospitals, highways, coal mines and offices that threaten their health -- and even their lives -- every day. The connection that workers need to make, (and that Democratic politicians fail to promote) is that their likelihood of coming home safe and sound after work is directly affected by what happens in the voting booth.

It’s not hard to see why these connections are not being made. First, as the Post and Times series made clear, many of the regulatory attacks that affect workplace safety (as well as the environment and consumer safety) happen behind the scenes, far away from the headlines of local newspapers or the 11:00 news. In addition, there are fewer and fewer reporters -- in large or small papers -- who understand even the most basic labor issues, much less the intricacies of workplace safety or regulatory law.

While workplace fatalities often garner a few short paragraphs in the local news, reporters generally rely on the employer’s explanation that the accident was an unforeseen act of God, instead of looking into the precautions and regulations that were ignored – often not for the first time. By the time the ineffective penalties have been handed down by OSHA, the press is no longer paying attention. No connection is made between OSHA's ineffectual response and the actions of politicians and industry associations in far away Washington D.C.

Only when workers are educated about the root causes of unsafe workplaces –- causes that reside not only in management failures to make the workplace safe, but also in politicians’ actions that further weaken government oversight; only when workers start questioning the politicians and candidates about why their safety is under attack and what they're going to do to change it; and only when unions recognize the full organizing potential of workplace safety issues; only then will we see workplace safety rise onto the radar screens of political campaigns.

There are a few signs of progress. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney is campaigning across Ohio with John Kerry. In an interview with the Akron Beacon Journal, Sweeney noted that

Union members have their own independence and make up their own minds....They are influenced by other members in their households, their communities and their workplace. But we are finding that people recognize how anti-worker, anti-union this administration has been with regard to overtime, safety and health, ergonomics and the lack of attention to the minimum wage.
I'm not quite as confident as John Sweeney is about how many people recognize how anti-worker the Bush administration has been with regard to safety, health or ergonomics. I think we still have some way to go to make the connections that will move people beyond the platitudes and into the issues that actually affect their daily lives.

How do we get there? What are you doing for the next 60 days?

** Jordan Barab is the author of Confined Space: News and Commentary on Workplace Health & Safety, Labor and Politics He has worked for labor unions and federal OSHA on workplace safety and health issues for more than 20 years.

Posted by Jordan Barab at September 6, 2004 07:47 AM