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UE NEWS HEALTH AND SAFETY


The *Reinvented* OSHA:
Which Side is it on?

UE News, January 1996

THE FEDERAL Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) conducted fewer health and safety inspections and cited fewer violations during the 1995 fiscal year than at any time in its 24-year history, according to figures recently released by the agency.

This is the clearest evidence to date that the Administration is turning its back on enforcement of the job safety and health law. However, OSHA spokeswoman Cheryl Byrne defended the agency, saying, "We think it’s just more evidence of the fact that we are changing the way we do business." But as far as workers are concerned, this is the problem, not a defense!

Margaret Seminario, AFL-CIO director of health and safety, said, "I think Joe Dear (head of OSHA) and the Administration need to take an immediate and serious look at what’s going on with this program."

The OSHA inspection data bear out her concern. In fiscal year 1994, OSHA personnel conducted 42,377 health and safety inspections in U.S. workplaces. In fiscal year 1995 (which concluded Sept. 30), OSHA conducted a record low of only 29,113 inspections, a drop of 31 percent in inspections in a single year! Before last year, the lowest number of inspections ever conducted by OSHA in a single fiscal year was in 1972, the agency’s first year of operation.

The number of OSHA citations for violations was only 90,555 last year, also a record low. The previous all-time low was in 1982, during the Reagan Administration, when only 97,906 violations were cited.

Not surprisingly, the amount of penalties issued by OSHA also dropped sharply. In fiscal year 1995, OSHA issued $87 million in penalties, a drop of 27 percent from the previous year. This was the lowest penalty assessment by OSHA since 1990. In defending their record, OSHA officials noted that the number of cases of heavy OSHA fines of employers (total fines greater than $100,000) almost doubled, from 68 in 1994 to 122 in 1995. But overall, the number of serious violations cited by OSHA in 1995 was down by 41 percent from the previous year.

DEATHS, INJURIES

While OSHA inspections, citations and fines dropped sharply in 1995, worker injury and illness rates on the job remained high, according to recent OSHA data. This OSHA data covered all reported work-related injuries and illnesses in calendar year 1994, was was just released in December 1995.

The overall inury and illness rate for 1994 was 8.4 cases per 100 full-time workers, essentially unchanged from 1993. Injuries alone went down by about 2.5 percent in 1994, but workplace illnesses increased by 4 percent.

The rising workplace illness rate was led by another 10 percent increase in carpal tunnel syndrone and other repetitive strain injuries (RSIs) in 1994. RSIs, which were rarely reported before 1982, now represent two-thirds of all workplace illnesses.

Specifically, about one-third of a million (332,000) cases of RSIs were reported to OSHA in 1994.

Deaths on the job were also up, by 4 percent, in 1994. A total of 6,588 workers were killed on the job in 1994, according to figures released earlier last year by OSHA.

This record of workplace deaths, injuries and illnesses certainly doesn’t call for a let-up in OSHA enforcement. It calls out — indeed, it cries out — for greater OSHA efforts, and more, not fewer, inspections.

WHAT’S GOING ON?

At the beginning of the present Administration, President Clinton and Vice President Gore announced with great fanfare that they were trying to "re-invent government." Since then, Joe Dear, head of federal OSHA, has actively been promoting OSHA re- invention within his agency.

We can see now what this re-inventioin really means: less enforcemtn of worker protections, and more consultation and technical assistance for employers. (And, remember, all of this assistance to employers is paid for by the tax money of American citizens — by you and me!)

Less law enforcement, fewer inspections and smaller fines — in short, an end to health and safety as a workers’ right — these are the major goals of the Republican OSHA "reform" bills which UE and other unions oppose so strongly. On Capitol Hill and local congressional offices, union people are lobbying daily against Ballenger OSHA bill (HR 1834) and the Gregg-Kassenbaum bill (S 1423).

So what is the Clinton Administration doing? Although officially opposed to the Republican bills, the Administration is in effect instituting many of the provisions of those bills, by not inspecting plants and by not issuing citations for violations. If this Administration gives in to big and little business by letting on OSHA enforcement, it is just feeding raw meat to the lions. This will only make OSHA opponents bolder and more greedy in their efforts to tear apart the law. We know this from long experience in contract negotiations — as soon as we give in an inch, management wants more, and more, and more.

If OSHA wants working people’s continued support, the agency will have to stand up with us in defense of worker rights. In short, OSHA needs to decide which side it’s on.


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