Draft Paper Criticizes OSHA's Approach to Safety

OSHA, since its inception 35 years ago, has failed to meet its promise of giving "every working man and woman in the nation safe and healthful working conditions," according to a draft paper written by a University of Washington professor.

"Getting Home Safe and Sound? OSHA at Thirty-Five" was written by Michael Silverstein – a professor of environmental and occupational health at the University of Washington and a former director of policy for OSHA from 1993 to 1995 – in the hopes of stimulating discussion about the future of workplace safety and health in the United States.

The Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP), a public health think tank based at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services in Washington, D.C., posted the draft documents on its Web site.

Silverstein: "A Promise Unfulfilled"

According to an online introduction posted by Silverstein on the Pump Handle – a Web site that describes itself as "a water cooler for the public health crowd" – Silverstein spent several months talking to people with experience in worker health and safety to gather ideas about how workers can be better protected.

"The more I hear, the more I am certain that we can't achieve this [better-protecting workers] by simply trying harder to do the same," he wrote.

Silverstein states that despite the fact that the overall national rates for injuries and deaths have declined since the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) in 1970, a "worker still becomes injured or sick from a dangerous job every 2.5 seconds and a worker dies from a workplace injury or illness every 8 minutes."

Silverstein does offer some of the positive impacts that the agency has had over the years. According to Silverstein, OSHA standards have raised the bar of expectations for employers to control exposure to workplace dangers.

"Inspections have lowered workplace injury and illness rates in many individual workplaces," Silverstein wrote. "And overall, national rates for workplace injuries and deaths have declined at least in part to activities set in motion by the OSH Act."

Still, the overall theme of the paper, Silverstein said, is that even though 35 years have passed since the OSH Act, "the promise of worker protection remains substantially unfilled."

Silverstein Offers Suggestions for Change

Silverstein, in the paper, suggests three areas for change:

  • Stronger and more creative implementation of the OSH Act;
  • Statutory improvements to the OSHA Act; and
  • A variety of measures outside the OSHA framework.

In the draft document, Silverstein states that vast improvements to the OSHA model have been proposed, but success only can be achieved if there are significant change in the political arena. He suggests several measures to achieve a change:

  • Reframing the language of worker protection to link it with broad resonant themes of health and human rights;
  • Assembling coalitions around issues of shared importance to labor and environmental groups, community organizations and public health professionals;
  • Building an institutional infrastructure; and
  • Strengthening our scientific base;

Silverstein believes that a limited framework versus a "long shopping list" is better in the long run so that "energies can be concentrated and coordinated instead of diffused."

Silverstein currently is seeking comments to the draft and asks that they be submitted to him direclty by March 1. For the online version of the draft paper, go to SKAPP's Web site.

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