I’m a blogger fellow with Brave New Films on their 16 Deaths Per Day campaign for worker safety. Join us on Facebook.

Last week, the House Education and Labor Committee held a hearing on HR 2067, the Protecting America’s Workers Act (PAWA). This bill would strengthen and modernize OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and give them the tools to actually carry out their mission of ensuring a safe workplace for all Americans.

We tend to think of health care as simply a matter of insurance and doctors and pills. But workplace safety plays just as vital a role. Most of us spend a majority of our waking hours at our workplaces. We often carry out dangerous tasks at worksites which are not fully screened by regulators. We are offered little training or safety equipment to carry out these tasks. And a lot of us die – 16 deaths per day, in fact, over 5,000 deaths a year due to workplace accidents, and many more – over 50,000 – from occupational disease.

Many of these deaths are preventable, and simply due to OSHA not having the resources or the tools to carry out its mandate. PAWA would change that. It would extend OSHA coverage to state, local and federal government workers, as well as airline and railroad employees, which (incredibly) do not currently get OSHA protections – well over 8 million workers. It actually raises civil penalties for worksite violations, for the first time in two decades, so that fines for keeping a hazardous workplace is not the cost of doing business. Any violation involving a worker death would be susceptible to a mandatory minimum penalty. And PAWA would provide accountability, by allowing prosecutions against employers who allow worker injuries and deaths willfully (employees and their families would have means to hold employers accountable as well). This would represent the first update of the Occupational Safety and Health Law since its enactment in 1970.

A report last week suggested that workplace injuries have declined, despite no changes to the law. Certainly the Chamber of Commerce has been throwing these statistics around. But these numbers from the Labor Department are often preliminary, involve changes to reporting standards, and never count the 50,000-plus deaths due to occupational diseases and toxic exposure. Indeed, the Chamber works hard to create reporting rules beneficial to their businesses, which mitigate reporting statistics. There’s also conflicting data, like the jump in workplace suicides. Meager successes – if they exist – do not eliminate the need for continued action.

The regulatory reform at OSHA over the past several years, prior to the Obama Administration, is legendary, and admirably summed up by this report from the Center for Progressive Reform. The current leadership of OSHA – Assistant Secretary David Michaels and Deputy Assistant Secretary Jordan Barab – have been handed a dysfunctional agency without the means to cover every worksite in America, nor the enforcement capabilities to force compliance. An excerpt:

Observing OSHA in its struggle to implement and enforce the OSH Act is a study of regulatory dysfunction. OSHA and its state partners employ fewer than 2,100 inspectors to keep tabs on more than 8 million U.S. workplaces. OSHA must meet so many analytical requirements that it takes more than a decade to implement a single new standard. By one
count, OSHA is subject to 18 different statutory, court-created, and administrative limits on its rulemaking process [...]

If conducted properly, a compliance assessment at a very large worksite might take 2,000 employee-hours. The accompanying legal proceedings can drag on for months or years. In Fiscal Year 2010, OSHA will spend about $227 million on federal enforcement programs, but will only have the capacity to inspect 40,000 of the nation’s more than 8 million workplaces.

Proactive rulemaking to manage emerging hazards, such as lung disease linked to diacetyl, and other flavoring chemicals used in the popcorn industry, can also be a huge resource drain. Every type of OSHA employee – economists, engineers, occupational health specialists, lawyers – is involved in the development of new health and safety standards. Coordinating their work is difficult and costly.

Yet, OSHA operates on a shoestring budget. OSHA’s budget climbed steadily in the 1970s, funding the agency’s growing capacity to develop new rules and enforce the OSH Act, which in turn triggered a backlash from the business community. Under the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, OSHA’s budget was first cut and then held roughly even with inflation. The Clinton administration gave OSHA a boost, and the agency’s budget reached an historic high in 2001. But that was the same year that the agency published its ill-fated ergonomics standard, and, like OSHA’s aggressive enforcement in the late 1970s, the ergonomics standard elicited a backlash in the business community and a subsequent whittling-away of the agency’s budget under George W. Bush.

The whole report is worth reading. You could tell this story in virtually every regulatory agency in America. The Reagan revolution ushered out real enforcement of industry and ushered in industry capture or resource starvation. This has continued largely unchecked until today. PAWA would change that, on a variety of levels.

And this isn’t an abstract problem. There are real consequences to inattention to our workplaces. To take just one example: in July 2009, a temporary worker in Camden, NJ named Vincent Smith died from falling into a vat of chocolate. He was untrained, without job security as a temp and making the minimum wage. And it turned out that the food processing plant didn’t have a license to make chocolate. They operated for six or seven years without scrutiny from federal or even local inspectors, and workers had no whistleblower protections to call OSHA and report the violations. In an effort to save money, Hershey sub-contracted out their chocolate processing to plants like this, and that savings comes at the expense of worker safety.

Local inspectors took out their wrath on the processing plant, fining them a whopping…. $1,152. Eventually, federal authorities investigated the plant, and they did come up with a fine for the multiple safety violations and the death of Vincent Smith – $39,000. This is considered a major fine for OSHA, and yet it’s a mere pittance of the profits for a company operating illegally without a license for 6 years.

Smith’s family has filed a personal injury lawsuit. But we cannot rely on the courts, absent regulators, to prevent the next death, or provide the deterrent needed to get employers to provide a safe workplace. We need the Protecting America’s Workers Act.