Can all injury and fatality incidents in the workplace be prevented? Theoretically, yes; realistically, no. Will stronger enforcement tools and higher penalties, such as those included in the Robert C. Byrd Miner Safety and Health Act, prevent a single injury or death? I think we all know the answer to that.
I support larger OSHA penalties for repeat and willful violations — and for criminal penalties in some cases. I'm not certain they'll help reduce injuries and illnesses, but I like the idea of bullies (a.k.a. repeat, willful violators) receiving the beatdown they deserve. However, I think a more comprehensive effort to overhaul the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) is in order, one that increases the focus on collaborative efforts, updates OSHA regulations to reflect today's workplace, targets the workplaces where injuries and fatalities are occurring and applies workplace safety and health regulations equally to all workers.
As it stands, the Miner Safety and Health Act stands a very good chance of being shot down in the Senate. A friend in Washington half-joked that for it to pass, there might need to be one more mine disaster. He pointed out what we all know: when 29 miners die, it gets our attention and we demand action. But that initial knee-jerk reaction is not the best way to reform the OSH Act.
In reality, if a Democratic Congress and a Democratic president cannot get OSHA reform passed, then maybe a new approach to reform is needed, one that isn't carried on the coffins of dead workers.
ONE LIFE AT A TIME
A slogan from Alcoholics Anonymous cautions “One Day at a Time.” My favorite quote, from Margaret Mead, is: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” In other words, don't get ahead of yourself or give up, because well-executed ideas can have tremendous results. Here are some measures I believe significantly could reduce fatality rates by saving one life at a time.
Update PELs — While updating permissible exposure limits (PELs) will be a nightmarishly time-consuming process, it is an effort that will pay off for OSHA and American workers long-term. While science tells us that exposure to even a minute amount of some chemicals can have lasting health effects, OSHA standards often allow for exposures of many times that amount.
Support VPP — Although OSHA's Voluntary Protection Program recently came under fire, many of those responding to the National Safety Survey begged that the agency not give up on the program and I have to agree. The fundamentals of the program are sound: management and employees take active roles in recognizing hazards, implementing solutions and communicating safety successes. VPP is an excellent program, which, if properly executed and managed, can save countless lives.
Include government workers — The Bureau of Labor Statistics determined that 10 percent of all workplace fatalities in 2008 occurred to government workers. Additionally, there were 277,680 occupational injuries and illnesses with days away from work reported for state and local government workers. Police officers don't like giving other police officers tickets, but enough already! OSHA: Cover this huge employment segment!
Target mid-size employers with additional tools, incentives and resources — The total recordable case injury and illness incidence rate was highest in 2008 among mid-size private industry establishments (those employing between 50 and 249 workers). These generally are not the bad apple employers; often, the CEOs of companies this size know employees by name. They want to do the right thing when it comes to safety. By partnering with them to provide additional support, OSHA can have a real impact on fatality and injury and illness rates.
When I hear testimony about the Miner Safety and Health Act, I envision 29 West Virginia miners and 11 Deepwater Horizon oil rig workers off the coast of Louisiana. What I don't see reflected in the OSHA reforms found in the Miner Safety and Health Act are the 5,000+ workers who die nearly anonymously each year, usually one at a time. My father, a union guy, called it “blood on the floor,” as in, “You know you've got trouble when you see blood on the floor.” We've got plenty of blood on the floor, and increasing an OSHA fine isn't going to change that.
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