OSHA Grilled on the Hill

During an April 24 hearing on Capitol Hill, federal lawmakers and critics lambasted OSHA and lamented that the agency's standard-setting system is “broken.”

Chaired by Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., members of the House Education and Labor Committee's Subcommittee on Workforce Protections grilled OSHA Administrator Edwin Foulke Jr. – who testified at the hearing – on why the agency has been “dragging its feet” in issuing safety and health standards.

Committee members also wanted to know why the agency has been concentrating more on building its alliance programs as opposed to creating more enforcement initiatives. Committee members charged that the agency's focus on compliance assistance has been ineffective.

“This is not a time to slow down on protecting worker safety,” Woolsey said. “But yet that is what [the Bush] administration has done.”

OSHA Standards Should Be Industry-Specific

Scott Schneider, director of occupational safety and health for the Laborers' Health and Safety Fund of North America, testified before the committee that OSHA's standards are not in line with today's workplace hazards. Schneider called on Congress to propel the agency to move its standard-setting system along.

One of Schneider's major grievances is his assertion that OSHA tends to set standards for general industry and exempts coverage for the construction industry – one of the most dangerous work sectors in the nation.

“ ... In 1993, OSHA issued a standard to protect workers in confined spaces from dangers of asphyxiation,” Schneider said. “After 14 years we still don’t have a proposed rule, and workers keep dying in confined space fatalities.”

Foulke contended that the administration has not been soft on enforcing standards and that its “four-pronged approach” of incorporating enforcement, safety and health standards and guidance, training and education and cooperative programs with compliance assistance and outreach has lowered the workplace injury and illness rate by more than 13 percent since 2002.

Foulke also stated that there might be a misconception on what the term “compliance” means.

“Compliance is not voluntary, it is mandatory,” Foulke said. “Since 2001, OSHA proposed more than three-quarters of a billion dollars in penalties for safety and health violations.”

Cal/OSHA Making Strides in Setting Standards

Frank Mirer, professor of environmental and occupational health sciences at the Hunter School of Urban Public Health in New York City, contended that the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) has been making strides in setting tough standards. For instance, the state of California limits occupational exposure to carbon monoxide to half of what OSHA allows. Exposure to perchloroethylene – a dry cleaning chemical – is limited to one-fourth of what OSHA allows, Mirer said.

Woolsey pointed out that Cal/OSHA is effectively responding to a petition made by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters in taking steps to protect workers from the popcorn flavoring agent diacetyl. The state agency currently is on track to develop a standard for the chemical and is currently conducting inspections of facilities that use diacetyl in its operations.

Federal OSHA recently launched a national emphasis program that addresses the hazards and control measures associated with working specifically in the microwave popcorn industry. However, Woolsey argued that such an effort is insufficient, as the most effective way to get employers to comply is with a standard. (For more, read “OSHA Launches Diacetyl Program.”)

Foulke explained that federal OSHA has to abide by “different statutory and legal burdens” the state of California doesn't have.

“California is the size of a country – 37 million people,” Woolsey retorted. “If they can do it, why can't the federal government?”

Hare: What Does OSHA Need to Improve Enforcement?

In regard to what OSHA can do to ratchet up its enforcement efforts, Rep. Phil Hare D-Ill., was more direct with Foulke and asked what it will take for OSHA to “do the best job they can” targeting employers who are careless about workplace safety.

Hare cited the tragedy at a Cintas Corp. laundry plant in Tulsa, Okla., where one employer died in March from being stuck in an industrial dryer for more than 20 minutes. Hare said that such tragedies never should happen.

“Is it the lack of inspectors, the lack of funds to hire additional inspectors?” Hare asked.

In response, Foulke pointed to OSHA's site-specific targeting inspection program and emphasized that the agency identifies 14,000 facilities with the worst injuries and illnesses rates each year.

“Clearly, we are focusing on [enforcement],” Foulke said. “And you clearly don't want us to inspect employers that have a great safety and health record.”

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