Safe Workplaces Guarantee Still Wishful Thinking

Despite the fact that nearly 237,000 workers' lives have been saved since passage of the OSH Act, the promise of a safe work environment for every American worker remains unfulfilled.

Since the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) in 1970, the U.S. job fatality rate has been cut by 75 percent, the injury rate per 100 full-time workers has fallen 42 percent and nearly 237,000 workers'' lives have been saved. Yet the promise of a safe and healthful work environment for every American worker remains unfulfilled.

According to "Death On the Job: The Toll of Neglect," a state-by-state profile of worker safety and health in the U.S. released by the AFL-CIO last month, part of the reason so many workers remain at risk is the fact that OSHA''s staffing and the portion of the federal budget being allocated to job safety and health protection is unequipped to handle such a monumental task. When compared to other federal agencies, OSHA is rather small in size and lacks the staff and funding necessary to oversee the safety of 109 million workers and 7.6 million workplaces under its jurisdiction.

Considering there are only 2,122 federal and state OSHA inspectors responsible for enforcing the law at nearly 8 million workplaces, ensuring safe working conditions for all American workers is challenging to say the very least. In fiscal year (FY) 2000, for example, the 847 federal OSHA inspectors conducted just 36,350 inspections (1,876 more than FY 1999) and the state OSHA plans combined conducted 55,564 inspections (723 fewer than in FY 1999).

At its current staffing and inspection levels, it would take federal OSHA 109 years to inspect each workplace under its jurisdiction just once. In six states (Florida, Louisiana, South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska and Mississippi), that figure jumps to more than 150 years for federal OSHA to pay a single visit to each workplace.

While inspection frequency is better in states that have OSHA-approved plans, it would still take the state OSHAs 63 years to inspect each worksite under state jurisdiction once.

That figure, too, has risen in recent years, as the agency would have been able to conduct a visit once every 60 years in FY 1999, once every 59 years in FY 1998 and once every 57 years in FY 1997.

In addition larger federal budget allocations to OSHA, the report calls for an extension in coverage to the 8.39 million workers who fall outside of the act''s protection, as well as stiffer penalties for significant violations of the law. Currently, serious violations of the Occupational Safety and Health Act carry an average penalty of $861 to $960 for federal OSHA and $771 for state OSHA plans.

"Very simply, workers need more job safety and health protection," the AFL-CIO report says. "The OSH Act needs to be strengthened to make it easier to issue safety and health standards to make the penalties for violating the law tougher."

by Melissa Martin

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