Is OSHA Underfunded?

Despite displeasing the Republican controlled Congress by pushing\r\nahead with its ergonomics standard, in terms of money OSHA fared well\r\nthis year.

Despite displeasing the Republican controlled Congress by pushing ahead with its ergonomics standard, in terms of money OSHA fared well this year.

Since 1997, the agency has won modest spending increases averaging 6 to 7 percent a year.

The $45 million in new spending for fiscal year 2001 is nearly twice as much as last year''s increase.

Nevertheless, when compared to several European countries it can be argued that OSHA is still severely underfunded, especially on a per capita basis.

Expenditure per worker is determined by dividing the total budget of the nation''s safety enforcement agency by the number of workers subject to its authority.

On a per worker basis, Ireland, Sweden, Denmark and the United Kingdom (UK) spend several times as much as on their government safety agencies as the United States.

Because of its size and political culture, the UK is the European country that may most closely resemble the United States.

Despite many years of Conservative Party government, in 1997 the UK had a larger enforcement authority to look after a far smaller workforce. The UK''s safety agency also spent nearly four times as much per worker as OSHA that year.

Is it possible that OSHA can get by on less money because it is so much more efficient than its European counterparts?

Since 1989, all four of these European nations have cut the number of reported fatal occupational injuries, by just a little in Sweden and Denmark, by quite a lot in Ireland and the UK.

During the same period in America, the number of fatal injuries increased.

The picture is cloudier with respect to reported injuries with lost work time in manufacturing industries -- a sector which has traditionally been a focal point of OSHA''s enforcement effort.

In percentage terms, OSHA''s 17 percent reduction is right in the middle: better than Ireland and big-spending Denmark, but worse than the UK and Sweden.

Of course, these data do not prove that America''s relative stinginess with safety enforcement is the cause of the nation''s mediocre safety performance. Many other factors may be at work. Comparisons between the nations are imperfect for a number of reasons.

Because reporting procedures differ widely between countries, the International Labor Organization (ILO) discourages using injury rates to make international comparisons.

But not using rates to make comparisons raises another problem: if total employment rose more rapidly in the United States than the other countries during this eight-year period, it could make the nation''s figures look worse.

Last year, for example, workplace injuries in the United States fell to 6,023, despite an increase in employment; more recent numbers for the European countries were not yet available.

Nevertheless, a nation''s values -- or what it values-- can be gauged by where it puts its resources.

When the politicians put together OSHA''s budget next year, they may want to consider the evidence that the U.S. government does not appear to "value" occupational safety as much as the governments of Ireland, Sweden, Denmark and the UK.

by James Nash

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