What Does Obama’s Win Mean for Workplace Safety?

Nov. 5, 2008
Sen. Barack Obama’s historic win in the Nov. 4 election was met with cries of “Yes, we did!” Obama built his campaign on the promise of change – but what does that mean for the future of workplace safety?

At current count, Obama received 349 electoral votes to Sen. John McCain’s 163. He won the battleground states of Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania, picked up states that previously voted for Republican candidates and edged close to McCain’s numbers in states Republicans previously won in large margins. Unlike the 2000 and 2004 elections, when close calls and disputes prevented a clear winner from emerging on election night, Obama unofficially was recognized as the winner once Ohio was called in his favor.

As a result of this landmark election, a Democrat president returns to the White House and the United States has elected its first black president. And the safety community no doubt will scrutinize how Obama’s leadership will affect workplace health and safety.

New Hope

Obama was widely supported by labor unions, and some safety stakeholders believed that having a Democrat back in the White House would lead to increased protections for the health and safety of workers. And with the Democrats gaining additional seats in the House and Senate, Obama’s vision for change is more likely to be supported.

The American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) President Warren K. Brown applauded the election results: “We fully support President-Elect Obama in saying that this is not the time to ‘fall back on the same partisanship,’ which, as in other issues facing this nation, has marked the occupational safety and health debate in recent years,” he said in a statement. “We are greatly hopeful that, with his leadership, creative and meaningful ways to confront long-standing occupational safety and health issues can be achieved through solutions that encourage the entire safety and health community to work together to achieve safer and healthier workplaces across the nation.”

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney also was optimistic about Obama’s election: “Two years ago, voters began voicing real dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq; this year, a financial tsunami stirred record levels of frustration. It took the inspiration of a rare leader to translate these concerns into an election the likes of which have not been seen in a generation,” he said. “Barack Obama brings new hope to America’s working families, and our increased majority in the Senate means we can translate that hope into reality.”

Other Priorities

Aaron Trippler, director of government affairs for the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA), told EHSToday.com that while he was confident that Obama’s election signifies change, he doesn’t expect to see immediate results in the occupational safety arena.

“I don’t think you’re going to see as much activity in Congress on this issue as you might think,” he said of workplace health and safety. “That’s because I think they have other priorities.”

Instead, Trippler predicted, Congress may leave these issues to OSHA, which is “where the action is going to have to take place.” But since OSHA likely will not have a new administrator until late summer of 2009 at the earliest, it may take until 2010 to address some of these workplace safety issues. Those issues, he believes, will include ergonomics, as well as diacetyl, combustible dust and silica.

“I think if we had our choice of sitting down and saying, ‘These are things that need to be done,’ the overall thing we need to fix is the process at OSHA,” Trippler concluded.

Speak Up

What do you think? Does Obama’s win indicate that improvements for worker health and safety are on the way – or will his promise of change prove difficult to deliver?

Use our comment section below to voice your own opinion on what this election and the new administration means for the future of occupational health and safety.

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