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Mr. Costello Goes to Washington (to Fight OSHA’s Plan to Publicize Workplace Safety Data)

Mr. Costello Goes to Washington (to Fight OSHA’s Plan to Publicize Workplace Safety Data)

We know that at least one speaker on the agenda for Thursday’s public meeting on OSHA’s proposed electronic-reporting rule will be there to voice his opposition to the proposed rule.

As media outlets have been reporting all week, Oklahoma Labor Commissioner Mark Costello has packed his bags for Washington, D.C., and plans to let OSHA know that it’s a bad idea to make establishment-specific injury and illness data available to the public.

Costello already is on record that he opposes OSHA’s plan.

“The experimental idea of OSHA using ‘naming and shaming’ as a means to improve safety is unwise,” Costello wrote in the public-comment docket for OSHA’s proposed electronic-reporting rule. “The unintended consequences are likely to do more harm than good. It’s the functional equivalent of painting a scarlet letter on individual businesses while creating a pick list for trial lawyers nationwide.”

Costello quotes a Wall Street Journal editorial penned by the late Sen. George McGovern, in which McGovern (who died in 2012) lamented that he wished his years of public service had been informed by “firsthand experience about the difficulties business people face every day.” Costello asserts that OSHA’s plan to publicize workplace safety data will stifle business growth, as the plan is being promulgated by a bunch of bureaucrats with no concept of what it takes to run a business.

While it’s true that there are too many career politicians in Washington (and elsewhere), it’s wrongheaded to assume that OSHA’s proposal will be a bane to business – even if, as the Tulsa World points out, “Costello says he has talked to 20 to 25 Oklahoma businessmen, and the idea is ‘universally unwelcome.’”

“A politician will never go bankrupt betting on the unpopularity of OSHA with businesses, but the unwelcome nature of the proposal isn't as universal as Commissioner Costello thinks,” the Tulsa World argues in an editorial. “Open, accessible records are a key to an educated public, and this idea sounds like a reasonable means of allowing the public to judge workplace safety. That is important evidence for those who would rewrite job-site regulations.”

If OSHA’s electronic-reporting proposal has done anything, it’s to thrust workplace safety into the spotlight. The proposal has garnered a ton of mainstream-media attention, and has sparked a nationwide conversation about safety, transparency and the extent and limits of the public’s right to know.

Echoing the comments of others who oppose OSHA’s electronic-reporting plan, Costello asserts that publicizing workplace safety data “opens opportunities for lawyers trolling for clients and isn’t proven to increase workplace safety,” as the Tulsa World reports.

“This proposed regulation is a federal-government overreach that will invite distortion of a company’s safety record and encourage unions, trial lawyers and other adversaries of the marketplace to use the data against the backbone of the economy, American businesses,” Costello says on the OSHA docket.

However, those responding to the Tulsa World editorial see things differently:

  • “Costello's position is disgusting. Outrageous. Dereliction of duty. A knife in the back of Oklahoma workers. It's an attempt to keep workplace safety problem hidden from view. Is this what it means to be ‘business-friendly?’” – Mert Rozman
  • “Growing up in Tulsa, I remember losing workers every year from ditch cave-ins. Now it is very, very rare. I stopped reading about them when steel sides were required to shore the walls of deep ditches. It did not happen before OSHA because those who did not use them could make a lower bid on sewer and water line construction. The more eyes reading the reports, the safer the workers.” – Gary Witt
  • “It is apparently fine for an employer to dig into a prospective employee’s past, credit history, etc., but we can't have it the other way around? That could hurt business?” – Ron Denton
  • “A government of the people, by the people and for the people must be transparent so as to maintain a well-informed public and voter.” – John Smallwood

The Tulsa World agrees with Costello on one important point: “that Oklahoma business owners – at least most of them ­– see employees as their most important assets, and the safety of workers is paramount.”

“The regulation would offer public proof of that assertion, and the opportunity to identify those who don't live by those standards,” the newspaper asserts.

I agree with Costello on another point: If OSHA goes ahead with its plan to publish an establishment-specific online database of injury and illness data, there is the potential for abuse. Yes, lawyers very well could use the database as a mill for potential clients (there’s a reason we call them “ambulance chasers”). And yes, there’s the possibility that some could exploit a workplace injury or fatality to impugn the reputation of a responsible employer. Even the safest companies have accidents.

It will be up to us – the public and especially the media – to view this data in context, and it will be up to OSHA to present this data in a way that allows the public to view it in context. If an otherwise safe employer has a rare fatal accident, it behooves us to know the circumstances of the accident, and to acknowledge that the employer’s injury and illness rate historically has been much lower than that of its industry peers. An online database should include some kind of root-cause analysis, and should allow users to make those kinds of comparisons.

All of that said, I believe that the potential benefits of a public database are far more compelling than the potential pitfalls. As the Tulsa World asserts, “the potential for public scrutiny adds additional motive to companies to emphasize workplace safety.”

What do you think?

TAGS: Safety OSHA
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