Obama’s OSHA: Improved but still weak

Federal regulators of workplace safety still have their hands tied by industry

Topics: Government, OSHA,

Obama's OSHA: Improved but still weak (Credit: Reuters)

After three years of the Obama administration, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) finds its ability to police the business community is extremely limited, even with a Democrat in the White House and legitimate health and safety experts leading the agency.

Almost every new regulation the agency issues, no matter how minor, is rebuffed amid a firestorm of ferocious rhetoric from influential (and highly capitalized) industry lobbying groups, and their Republican allies. Other branches of the Obama administration hinder OSHA’s rule-making process, while some Democrats, including the president, express an ambivalent attitude toward regulation.

“There is no question that OSHA under Obama is a vast improvement over the previous administration,” says Tom O’Connor, executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health. “This is not reflected in new regulations, but in the approach to enforcing existing [regulations] and using the authority that they have to make the agency more of a serious deterrent to unsafe conditions.”

Workplace health and safety advocates had expected more. They greeted Obama’s 2008 victory with relief. After eight years of ineffectual Republican control, the Department of Labor, and specifically the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, would be in friendly hands.

The administration staffed the agency well, nominating experts from the health and safety profession and the labor movement and shunning the industry insiders favored by George W. Bush. Obama’s choice for OSHA chief, David Michaels, had a public interest pedigree, including a 2008 expose of the questionable claims big business makes in defense of its products. While Senate Republicans stalled other Labor Department appointees, the administration’s OSHA nominees were quickly approved.

OSHA is primarily an inspection agency and it is in this capacity that Michaels and his staff are given the greatest latitude, although even here they operate within clearly delineated limits. For example, although Michaels hired 130 new OSHA inspectors, there are still only 2,200 inspectors (including state OSH officers) for 8 million work sites. The penalty amounts the agency can issue, which are set by Congress, have not been updated since 1990, with both serious and repeat violations set at a paltry $7,000 and a $70,000 maximum for willful violations.

Michaels’ OSHA maximizes its capabilities by playing with the percentages: increasing minimum penalties and reducing the size of the violation abatements OSHA offers for factors that include establishment size, employer good faith and past history. But as Michaels testified before Congress: “Any administrative changes we are able to make would still be inadequate to compel many employers to abate serious hazards. These steps are an effort to do the best with the outdated, antiquated tools we have.”

Even so, employers have taken notice. One business consultant’s new ad reads: “OSHA’s back in the enforcement business and issuing inspections and citations at a record pace. They’ve hired more inspectors, are pushing for higher penalties and even looking to put safety pros in jail.” Such scare tactics are clearly self-serving in this instance, but OSHA’s recalibration of its penalty system got serious coverage in trade journals and among industry associations. These actions could compel employers to think twice before taking chances with workers’ lives, even if the average OSHA penalty is still around $1,000.

Since Obama’s election OSHA has built stronger ties with community and workers’ centers, in an attempt to make the agency accessible to vulnerable immigrant workers. OSHA’s campaign to encourage employers to provide training materials to workers in a language they understand can also be understood as an attempt to extend the agency’s protection to sectors that have long gone unpoliced.

The Michaels regime strengthened OSHA’s enforcement mechanisms, but when it comes to new regulations they are stymied at every turn. In early 2010 OSHA attempted to issue a rule to allow employers to note when a workplace injury was caused by repetitive stress. The standard would have added an extra column to the survey employers are required to fill out when a worker is hurt. The Chamber of Commerce reacted fiercely, and a year later the regulation was dead. A similar fate befell a proposed rule that would have required basic engineering controls to protect workers from excessive and eardrum-damaging noise on the job.

OSHA’s most recent regulatory dust-up is over the proposed silica standard. The proposed rule would limit worker exposure to crystalline silica, a breathable dust found in many construction, manufacturing and mining operations, which causes silicosis, an incurable disease linked to lung cancer and other deadly respiratory illnesses.  Two hundred people die of it a year. OSHA’s silica rule is believed to require the halving of the current permissible exposure limit to silica, to be achieved through better ventilation and a requirement that brick and concrete be hosed with water before cutting, thus reducing dust.

But industry fears that any rule will engender higher costs of production and, consequently, kill jobs. “It could affect 2 million jobs, and the construction industry … is not back on its feet yet … it might cost $3 billion a year — it’s a very expensive process,” said Rob Crolius, president of the Refractories Institute, a trade association whose members would be affected by the standard. Other trade groups lobbying to prevent the standard include the American Chemical Alliance, Brick Industry Association, Associated General Contractors of America, and the National Association of Home builders, among many others.

And they’ve been quite successful: The silica standard is currently stuck in the limbo of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (a historic “graveyard of regulations”). Well over a year has passed since OSHA submitted the rule but still it languishes with OIRA, which has spent a disproportionate amount of time with business stakeholder groups behind closed doors during the interminable review process. OIRA is technically only supposed to spend four months reviewing a rule. Spokespeople refuse to comment on the extraordinary delay.

The fate of the silica standard is a neat encapsulation of OSHA’s existential crisis. Even when lead by dedicated staffers the agency remains enmeshed within a larger political system that is dominated by reflexively anti-regulatory ideologies. Even Democratic politicians find satisfaction in inveighing against bureaucracy and regulations that “have had a chilling effect on growth and jobs,” as president Obama himself has written.

The targets of their ire are rather vague. Contrary to the mythology of the campaign trail, many regulations are reasonable, serve a public purpose and are rarely as expensive as industry fears they will be. When both parties use conservative rhetoric to undermine the regulatory responsibilities of the state it is little wonder that OSHA finds itself forced to operate within such a limited field.

It could be argued that the Obama administration is delaying OSHA’s regulatory decisions because of potential political controversy, especially during a hotly contested election year. But political scientists argue that relatively obscure policy compromises have little impact upon electoral politics. Few people pay attention to such issues, and those who do already have a fixed position. Delaying real policy that affects real people, for ethereal political gain, makes little sense.

“There were efforts during the Clinton administration to get major rules out. I worked in the agencies then, and at that moment it may seem that you are really sensitive [to political controversy],” says Celeste Monforton, professorial lecturer at George Washington University School of Public Health who worked for the Department of Labor for over 10 years. “But I learned you have to take opportunities when you have them. We didn’t get a Gore administration. You have to move fast when you have the opportunity, otherwise you may not have it next year.”

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>