Henshaw, Shufro, Respond to Times' Series

Jan. 7, 2004
In separate letters to the editor, Assistant Secretary of Labor John Henshaw and Joel Shufro, executive director, New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, commented on the recent series of articles published by the New York Times that revealed OSHA rarely seeks prosecution for the most serious violations of workplace safety and health laws.

In his letter, Henshaw said the three-article series (which can be found at www.nytimes.com) "does not reflect the Labor Department's strong record of enforcing the nation's health and safety laws and reducing workplace injuries, illnesses and fatalities through its Occupational Safety and Health Administration."

While admitting "There are still too many families who lose loved ones in workplace accidents," Henshaw pointed out there are "fewer workplace fatalities, illnesses and injuries than ever before." Over the past 30 years, workplace fatalities have been cut in half and injuries and illnesses reduced by over 40 percent, said Henshaw, who noted that during the same time period, the American work force has doubled.

He said that workplace fatalities in 2002 fell to the lowest point ever recorded, "and inspection results show that we are focusing on the most dangerous workplaces."

However, he admitted. "There is more to be done. One fatality is one too many, and workplace injuries and illnesses can and should be avoided. We will not stop until that goal is reached."

He pointed out OSHA helps employers meet their occupational safety and health obligations through compliance assistance and enforcement, noting that one of the enforcement tools at the agency's disposal is referral to the Department of Justice for criminal prosecution. "However, many cases do not reach the high burden of evidence for successful criminal prosecution - proving each element of a violation beyond a reasonable doubt. For a civil citation, a lesser standard suffices - preponderance of the evidence. The department does not refer cases that do not meet the higher burden of proof required for criminal prosecution by the Justice Department," said Henshaw.

Shufro, in his letter, stressed a different point. Shufro noted that for each worker killed on the job as a result of traumatic injury, 10 workers die of occupational diseases. "Although an estimated 66,000 workers die each year from occupational disease, their employers are never prosecuted," he said.

He admitted it is difficult to prove that a worker's death from an occupational disease is a result of a particular employer's action or inaction. "Illnesses caused by exposure to chemicals often have a latency period of 10 to 40 years," said Shufro. "Workers are often exposed to hundreds of chemicals over their lifetime."

He stressed that stronger enforcement of current standards would help the situation, but, according to Shufro, standards exist for only 500 of the some 70,000 chemicals used in the workplace, and the standards that do exist are "woefully out of date and inadequate."

Shufro added, "The death of a worker from occupational disease is no less necessary or tragic than the deaths described in your excellent series. Unfortunately, as with the fatalities you described, some employers get away with murder."

About the Author

Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is the former content director of EHS Today, and is currently the EHSQ content & community lead at Intelex Technologies Inc. She has written about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990.

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