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Kennedy and Murray Relaunch OSHA Reform Efforts

Is OSHA doing its job? Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., don't think so and they're raising the spectre of OSHA reform.

Their efforts at OSHA reform kicked off April 26 when the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions' Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety convened a hearing titled, "Is OSHA Working for Working People?"

Murray, who chairs the subcommittee, said she does not believe OSHA is living up to its original (1970) mission to “assure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women.”

“Health care, construction and low-wage workers come to my office and tell me that they don't have the protections they deserve,” said Murray. “Sixteen people a day and nearly 6,000 people a year are still dying in work-related accidents across this country. This is way too many. It is abundantly clear that much more work needs to be done to reform OSHA so we can begin to make OSHA work for working Americans."

Faint Praise

In his opening remarks, Kennedy, chair of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, started out by praising OSHA, noting that since 1970, according to the National Safety Council and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the overall job fatality rate has been reduced by 78 percent. In manufacturing, the fatality rate dropped by 73 percent and the injury rate by 59 percent. In construction, the fatality rate declined by 84 percent and the injury rate by 68 percent.

“The adoption of standards – like those for confined spaces, dangerous equipment and grain dust – have prevented thousands of unnecessary deaths and illnesses,” said Kennedy, who then went on to blast OSHA's performance under the Bush administration.

“OSHA must do more to stop serious safety violations before, not after, workers are injured or killed,” Kennedy insisted. “It needs to develop better standards for old hazards, and new standards for new hazards posed by new technologies and new chemicals. The record shows that when OSHA issues new standards and enforces them, lives are saved. Yet over the last 6 years, needed safety standards have languished, unfinished. It is time for swift action on strong regulations to protect America’s workers.”

Noting that some worker populations are more vulnerable to workplace injuries and fatalities, Kennedy pointed out that Hispanic workers, for example are almost 20 percent more likely to be killed on the job. “Many of them are immigrants who do not know their rights, and do not receive safety training or protective equipment,” said Kennedy. “This is an issue that we also need to bear in mind as we look at comprehensive immigration reform. Exploitation of the most vulnerable workers puts all workers at risk.”

Expert Testimony

Following remarks by Kennedy and Murray, a diverse group testified, including Dr. David Michaels, professor and associate chairman of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at George Washington University; Peg Seminario, director of the AFL-CIO’s Safety and Health Program; Konnie Compagna, a registered nurse from Washington State, who testified about the epidemic of back injuries caused by manual patient handling in the health care industry; and Tom Cecich, who chairs the Government Affairs Committee of the American Society of Safety Engineers.

Cecish told the senators that while it is true that OSHA is a regulatory enforcement agency, practicing safety professionals know that enforcement alone is not sufficient in eliminating workplace injuries and illnesses in this country.

“Most SH&E professionals believe that for OSHA to achieve its Congressional mandate of eliminating occupational injuries and illnesses, it is essential that OSHA utilize a broad array of tools in order to reach all types of organizations,” Cecich said. “Consultative services, alliances, cooperative programs, training and education, standards setting and enforcement are all tools that OSHA must utilize. With less than 3,000 employees to serve more than six million businesses, it is vital that OSHA leverage all its resources to obtain the maximum benefit.”

Cecich, a safety professional for over 35 years, is a retired vice president of GlaxoSmithKline, where he had responsibility for Environment, Health and Safety Global Business Support.

While Cecich commended the agency for alliance and cooperative programs, saying that as a result of such programs, “OSHA has become a more open organization that does a better job at reaching out to its stakeholders and the safety and health community,” he added that there were plenty of opportunities to improve the agency.

“The OSH Act has changed little in 36 years, yet during that time, huge changes and many advances have occurred in U.S. workplaces and our workforce. OSHA has evolved during that period to reach as many stakeholders as possible,” Cecich testified. “However, like world-class organizations, OSHA must seek to continuously improve its safety and health processes. ASSE hopes that Congress can provide OSHA with the guidance and support OSHA needs to continuously reinvent itself to meet the needs of this nation’s workforce. Today’s hearing is an important part of that continuous improvement process.”

Cecich was straightforward in his criticism of the standards-setting process, which he testified is broken and needs to be fixed. “Limitations in the original Act, subsequent Congressional and Executive Branch actions, resource constraints at OSHA and a litany of private court challenges have resulted in an inability of OSHA to update old regulations and to develop new standards in a timely manner to protect the U.S. workforce.”

Compagna, a labor and delivery nurse at Valley Medical Center in Renton, Wash., suffers from shoulder and elbow injuries that prevent her from working almost anywhere else in the hospital.

She told the committee members, “[O]ur government’s safety net to protect workers from health and safety hazards is broken. In the past decade, hospital workers have eclipsed the injury and illness rates of workers in mining, manufacturing or even construction.”
She noted that few OSHA stadards address hazards associated with healthcare. “There are no standards to stem the tide of neck, back, and shoulder injuries caused by the manual lifting and transferring of patients. There are no standards to protect workers from tuberculosis, SARS, weapons of mass destruction, pandemic flu or other airborne biological agents. I call upon this committee to push the federal government to expand standard setting and enforcement to protect workers in the largely neglected, fastest growing sectors of the economy.”

Kennedy said he and Murray plan a number of hearings in 2007 on worker safety and health, noting the Senate already has convened hearings on the health effects of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and that Murray has convened hearings on the dangers of asbestos and domestic violence in the workplace.

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