USA Elections and OHS

A time for change
Worker safety should be an issue in the presidential, congressional elections

Fri, Oct 31, 2008

Worker safety has been a largely overlooked issue for American voters and politicians alike, and this year's campaign has been no different, particularly as the issue has been overshadowed by the economy and the war in Iraq.

But voters should recognize the importance of the issue, considering as many as 1 in 10 workers are injured every year. And the cost to the taxpayers and the economy of workplace injuries is measured in the hundreds of billions of dollars. Considering the rash of construction deaths on the Las Vegas Strip — 12 in a 19-month period — Nevada voters should consider workplace safety an important campaign issue. The Strip deaths highlighted the ineffectiveness of America's hallmark worker safety law, the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, and the fact that it has not been enforced. Between the weak law and the political whims of some occupants of the White House (particularly President Bush), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the nation's primary safety regulator, hasn't been able to do its job.

Some members of Congress have tried for the past four years to overhaul the law with a bill called the Protecting America's Workers Act.

But Republicans and business interests have raised stiff opposition to the bill, which would increase fines and penalties for willful safety violations. The fines would send a strong message to employers, making it clear that worker safety has to be paramount.

The presidential candidates' stances on worker safety laws provide a clear contrast. Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama is a co-sponsor of the bill. Republican nominee Sen. John McCain opposes key provisions in the bill, such as the increased fines and the expansion of the law to cover millions of workers, such as government employees, who are exempted.

Republicans decry what they say is the high cost of regulation to business, but they fail to acknowledge or care that injuries and illnesses cost the American economy greatly. The Social Security Disability Trust Fund pays out nearly $100 billion a year. And workplace injuries cost American businesses as much as $232 billion a year, according to workers' compensation insurer Liberty Mutual.

The boost in fines in the bill would provide a critical deterrent. For example, the bill would mandate a minimum fine of $50,000 in a fatality in which the employer willfully ignored safety. The current law allows a minimum fine of $5,000.

The bill would also make willful criminal negligence that leads to a worker's serious injury or death a felony. Such a crime now is only a misdemeanor punishable by six months in prison — and only if a worker dies. In contrast, someone who illegally sells a migratory bird faces a felony charge and two years in prison.

Strong fines and penalties are necessary to send a message that violating worker safety laws and putting workers at risk is unacceptable. The law currently allows not only paltry fines of a few thousand dollars, which is minuscule compared to the multibillion-dollar projects on the Strip, but it also makes them negotiable. Employers can try to persuade regulators to reduce or waive fines and citations, as was the case in many of the Las Vegas fatalities.

Regulators use the reductions to reward employers for working quickly to fix problems. But OSHA should be working to stop injuries and fatalities before they happen, not addressing them post-mortem.

Every year in America, more than 5,000 people are killed at work. The federal government reports that more than 4 million people are injured each year on the job, although many experts and health economists believe that number is vastly underreported and may be more than three times as high.

Unfortunately, many members of Congress, including McCain, seem content to let millions of workers and their families struggle with the financial and emotional costs of injuries suffered on the job. To make matters worse, in the past eight years the Bush administration has, in its anti-government crusade, slashed OSHA's budget, stalled regulation and minimized workplace tragedies to protect business interests.

Both presidential candidates say this election is about change, and the prevailing attitude in Washington on worker safety certainly needs to change.

Jordan Barab