Edwards Calls for Ambitious OSHA Reform

Criticizing the Bush administration for failing to protect U.S. workers, Sen. John Edwards, D-NC, has become the first of nine candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination to release a comprehensive program that is intended to strengthen OSHA's enforcement of workplace safety rules.

Two central aims of the plan are to toughen enforcement whenever a worker dies because of a willful OSHA violation, and creation of new safety standards. Some of the ways Edwards would seek to strengthen sanctions against employers when a willful safety violation causes a worker to die include:

  • Requiring OSHA to refer all such cases to the Department of Justice for possible criminal prosecution;
  • Increasing criminal penalties for worker deaths from six months in jail to 10 years;
  • Requiring companies to summarize such incidents on their annual reports, while OSHA maintains a similar list on its Web site;
  • Requiring OSHA to notify workers and their unions of the progress of investigations and give them the opportunity to review and comment on proposed settlements. OSHA would then have to respond to these comments before completing settlements.

"In 2001, 16 people died every day simply because they went to work," said Edwards in a Dec. 31 statement accompanying the release of his proposal. "In this new century, our workers should be safer, not at risk."

Edwards' explained that his proposal stems from a series of articles in the New York Times showing that from 1982 to 2002, OSHA failed to seek criminal prosecution in 93 percent of the 1242 cases in which the agency concluded a worker had died because of a willful safety violation.

An OSHA spokesperson said the agency had no comment on Edwards' plan, but referred to a letter from OSHA Administrator John Henshaw published in the Times in response to the newspaper's expose. Henshaw explained, "Many cases do not reach the high burden of evidence for successful criminal prosecution" (proving each element of a violation beyond a reasonable doubt). He defended OSHA's record, pointing out that in 2002, workplace fatalities fell to the lowest point ever recorded, even as the work force has grown.

Edwards is also calling for a new safety and health standard, a rule first pursued when Bill Clinton was president and later dropped by the Bush administration. In addition, the North Carolina lawmaker would institute ergonomics rules and regulate reactive chemicals, as recommended by the Chemical Safety Board.

Noting that it would take more than 115 years for OSHA to visit every workplace for which it is responsible, Edwards said this year President Bush proposed cutting 77 jobs at OSHA. Edwards promised he would reverse this policy, and give the "overtaxed agency the additional resources it needs to do its job."

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