Editorial: Taking Stock of 2004

Is the quiet life the best we can hope for in occupational safety and health?

What kind of year was 2004 for occupational safety and health? My strongest impression is that the year left little impression at all. Things were about the same. And that, of course, is the starting point for the debate on what the status quo means.

During the presidential election, little was said about job safety. Or the environment, or a host of other issues. Safety's absence from the public dialogue is not particularly alarming. When about 5,500 people are killed on the job, usually one at a time, often out of the public view, it is not surprising that a country with 295 million people is not riveted on the issue. In a largely information- and service-based economy, much of the working population has no sense that they will be hurt or killed at work.

To some degree, that is both a sign of economic and technological change, and a sign of success in safety management. We produce products with more automation and fewer people exposed to hazards, and a lot of what we used to manufacture here is now made in China and other countries. And we have been living for more than three decades with a law, the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, that provides a safety net for workers. I would argue that when the 91st Congress passed the OSH Act, it was dealing in a fundamental way with what we more currently refer to as "family values." Few things are more destructive to a family than the loss of a father, mother, son, or daughter or breadwinner. Workers expect and deserve workplaces that protect their safety and health. Some of our safety success should be ascribed to this rather good law and to the efforts of tens of thousands of safety and health professionals over these decades to build safer workplaces day by day.

In fiscal year 2004, OSHA continued its policy of what it calls a "balanced approach" to job safety. The agency exceeded its goal of 37,000 inspections (though it actually conducted fewer inspections than the previous year) and increased the number of violations cited to 86,708. While we will not have 2004 statistics for several months, the agency in September released fatality data for 2003 that showed a slight increase in fatalities, to 5,559.

Along with enforcement, OSHA Administrator John Henshaw and his staff have focused much of their attention on compliance assistance and voluntary safety efforts. In the summer, OSHA announced that it was separating its enforcement and compliance assistance offices. Compliance assistance was moved to a newly named Directorate of Cooperative and State Programs. The new directorate coordinates OSHA's role in carrying out compliance assistance and outreach activities. Three new offices were created in the new directorate, including the Office of Partnerships and Recognition, the Office of Outreach Services and Alliances and the Office of Small Business Assistance. The Office of Small Business Assistance helps small businesses and their associations develop compliance assistance materials and methods of getting them to the thousands of small businesses who are unable to hire full-time safety staff or expensive consultants.

What about the other tools OSHA has available to advance the cause of worker safety? In announcing the fatality figures, Henshaw said: "We have said many times before that even one workplace fatality is one too many, and we will continue to do everything we can to make sure workers are safe through strong, fair and effective enforcement; outreach, education and compliance assistance; and partnerships and cooperative programs."

In doing everything it can, the agency is tenaciously avoiding the creation of standards where possible. Battles such as the carcinogen policy and the ergonomics standard have robbed OSHA of its taste for large-scale rulemaking. Now, it exists in an eggshell landscape where only the most modest standards are attempted, or where, as in the case of hexavalent chromium, a court orders the agency to act. So despite the urging of unions and professional associations such as the American Industrial Hygiene Association and the American Society of Safety Engineers, the agency continues to follow a narrowly defined, balanced approach that largely substitutes the bully pulpit for the creation of legal standards.

For its part, Congress can't seem to stomach even modest reforms for the agency. Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., has tried to pass a bill that would improve hazard communication, provide incentives for employers to use third-party safety and health consultants, and make it a felony if a worker dies as a result of a willful violation of OSHA standards. Politics may be the art of compromise, but in 2004, this middle-of-the-road bill simply fell into a rut.

If we live in a society where job safety is less important to the working population as a whole, it does not mean that it is unimportant. Our political leaders should remember this as they chart the future course of OSHA, NIOSH and other agencies. Living the quiet life may be appealing, but is it really the best we can do?

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