The Bush administration requested no new money for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) this year, but just before Christmas Congress agreed to be more generous, increasing the agency''s $425.8 million 2001 budget by a little over four percent. The largest increase is in the enforcement program.
OSHA''s $17 million budget increase this year might seem like a princely sum, but compared to European countries the federal government treats OSHA like a pauper.
On a per worker basis, Ireland, Sweden, Denmark, and the United Kingdom spend several times as much as on their government safety agencies as the United States. 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.
By this measure, the United Kingdom spends almost four times as much on its Health and Safety Executive (HSE) as the United States. gives to OSHA. Despite many years of Conservative Party government, in 1997 the UK had a larger enforcement authority to look after a far smaller workforce.
Comparable figures for more recent years are not available, but the ratios of safety budgets to national workforces do not change rapidly from one year to the next. Despite a $100 million increase in funding since 1997, by 2001 OSHA spending had only risen from $3.51 to $3.96 per worker, according to the AFL-CIO.
Is it possible that OSHA can get by on less money because it is so much more efficient than its European counterparts?
Since 1989, four 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 has increased.
Of course, these data do not prove that America''s relative stinginess with safety enforcement is the cause of the nation''s possibly lagging safety performance.
Comparisons between the nations are imperfect for a number of reasons. Because reporting procedures differ widely between countries, the International Labor Organization discourages using injury rates to make international comparisons.
"I still don''t think I''d take the health and safety rules of any European country over those in the United States," said Aaron Trippler, director of government affairs at the American Industrial Hygiene Association. "Yes, they spend more per worker, but that''s because their businesses don''t spend a lot - 99 percent of the companies here are doing things on their own."
The ratio of safety inspectors to workers being protected is another way to position the resources devoted to the US safety enforcement effort.
"The ratio of OSHA inspectors to workers liable to inspection is unbelievably low in the U.S.," commented Wolfgang von Richthofen, senior labor inspection specialist for the International Labor Organization.
European countries average about one inspector for every 10,000 workers, according to Richthofen. "For very poor developing countries we advocate a standard of one inspector for 40,000 working people."
Excluding those not covered by OSHA, workers in state and local government and the mining industry, as of 1999 there was one federal or state OSHA inspector for 55,976 workers.
By James Nash