Congressmen React to Rising Fatalities: Is OSHA Responsible?

Sept. 14, 2005
For the second year in a row, fatal occupational injuries rose in 2004: Such injuries killed 5,703 workers last year, 128 more than the year before, according to a report recently released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

For the first time in 10 years, the fatality rate also went up, from 4.0 to 4.1.

The previous OSHA administrator, John Henshaw, often said the agency's performance should be evaluated by its success in reducing the "triple bottom-line" of workplace injuries, illnesses and fatalities. In this, the first installment of a three-part series titled, "Judging OSHA: The Triple Bottom Line," congressmen and a former OSHA administrator explain what they think the fatality data reveal about the agency's effectiveness.

OSHA Reacts

Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor Jonathan Snare had this to say about the 2004 BLS numbers: "We have always maintained that even one workplace fatality is one too many, so we are concerned that today's data show even a small increase in fatality rates. While the fatal injury rates remain historically low, we will continue to take every step necessary to make sure workers are safe."

Snare's more-positive outlook on the fatality report is supported by BLS data. Despite the recent upward trend, the number of workplace fatal injuries in 2004 was the third-lowest annual total since 1992.

What appeared more troubling to lawmakers than the overall increases in death on the job was the sharp rise in Hispanic fatalities, an immigrant community OSHA has targeted in recent years with outreach efforts. Despite these programs, fatal work injuries among Latino workers shot up 11 percent in 2004, after falling the 2 previous years, while the rate of fatal work injuries among Latino workers also rose, from 4.5 to 4.9 per 100,000 workers.

OSHA critics, such as Rep. Major Owens, D-N.Y., seized on the data, using it as further proof that the current administration's emphasis on voluntary efforts, rather than strict enforcement, had failed.

In a statement, Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Ga., the chairman of the House OSHA oversight subcommittee, reached an opposite conclusion:

"These figures show an immediate need to redouble our efforts to increase our voluntary compliance programs that have proven so effective in reducing workplace injuries and death where they have been implemented." What Norwood found "particularly troubling" was the increase in Latino deaths, and he worried that the country may now be reaping "a bitter harvest from turning our back on illegal immigrants in the workforce."

Owens, the ranking member of the OSHA subcommittee, agreed with Norwood about what was most troubling in the BLS data.

"You have a great increase in the number of construction deaths, and a large percentage of those are immigrants that really jumps out at you," said Owens. But the rising fatalities drove the New York congressman to a very different conclusion about OSHA policy.

Owens blamed the growing death count on "weakened OSHA enforcement, driven by an attitude that workers are expendable."

Clinton-Era OSHA Administrator Defends the Agency

Despite their policy disagreement, both Owens and Norwood appeared to share Henshaw's view that OSHA is directly responsible for workplace fatalities.

Ironically, Charles Jeffress, who led OSHA in the Clinton administration, offered some defense for the agency by rejecting Henshaw's notion that fatality numbers can be directly tied to OSHA effectiveness.

"Obviously, I disagree with the current administration I don't believe its current OSHA policy is effective," said Jeffress, now the chief personnel officer at the Legal Services Corp. "But that's not to say they're to blame for the increase in fatalities."

Jeffress argued that deaths occur at individual workplaces primarily because of decisions made by employers and employees. But he did suggest that by emphasizing cooperation at the expense of enforcement, OSHA has led many employers to place a lower priority on safety.

The former OSHA administrator said the agency does have a "contributing relationship" to fatality data. "But to suggest we know what percentage is attributable to OSHA I don't think we'll ever be able to do that."

Next in this series: "Using Injury, Illness and Fatality Data: Is OSHA Consistent?"

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