UE News, January, 1998
Do you believe in fairy tales? Apparently our leaders in Washington seem
to think so. President Clinton tells us the economy is booming, and unemployment is at a
post-World War II low. But what most of us see is job insecurity, falling average wages in
the U.S., and the continuing loss of manufacturing jobs.
Now from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) we get
another report of upbeat, less-than-meets-the-eye news. On Dec. 17, Labor Secretary Alexis
Herman announced that the national occupational injury and illness rate for the year 1996
fell to its lowest value since OSHA was founded in 1971.
The work injury and illness rate was 7.4 per hundred workers in 1996, down
8.6 percent from the 1995 figure of 8.1 injuries and illnesses per hundred workers. This
still amounts to 6.2 million cases of injuries and illnesses in 1996. But for the
fourth year in a row the rate of work-related injuries has fallen.
But if you look more carefully at the data, you realize that OSHA is
playing a numbers game with the reported rates. The drop in the injury rate is mostly due
to a drop in the so-called "non-lost-time" injuries. These are easy to cover up,
since they dont leave a paper trail of medical records and comp claims. Thus reports
about them tend to be unreliable.
If employers think OSHA is looking over their shoulders, they report these
non-lost-time injuries. When OSHA inspections ease up, reports of these injuries drop.
Now, with OSHA inspections at an all-time low, employers just dont report these
injuries, and so the injury and illness rate "falls."
But if you look at lost-time injuries and illnesses, which do leave
a paper trail of medical bills and compensation claims, these have hardly changed at all
over the years.
Over the last 20 years, from 1976 to 1996, this category of injuries and
illness has fallen only 2.9 percent from 3.5 lost-time injuries and illnesses per
100 workers in 1976 to just 3.4 per 100 workers in 1996. (In contrast, the non-lost-time
injury and illness rate fell 28 percent over this same 20-year period, from 5.7 per 100
workers in 1976 to 4.1 per 100 in 1996.)
Also, work-related illnesses in 1996 continued at a high rate, although
down slightly from 1995. Specifically such illnesses made up 7 percent of all reported
workplace incidents in 1996. This is more than twice the rate that job illnesses were
running a decade ago. (In 1986, for example, illnesses made up only two and one-half
percent of all workplace incidents.) Leading the way in workplace illnesses were repeated
trauma disorders, which made up 64 percent or almost two-thirds of the
439,000 illnesses reported.
So when President Clinton and Mr. Gore tell you youve never had it
so good, dont believe them for a minute. Lost-time injury rates, the most reliable
OSHA figures we have, havent changed much in decades. When these begin to fall and
keep falling, then maybe well have something to celebrate. Until then, pardon us if
were from Missouri.
* * * *
By the way, in the November issue of the UE NEWS, I wrote about the
nefarious Enzi-Gregg OSHA "Reform" bill (S. 1237 and HR 2579). I reported to you
that this bill established for the first time worker fines of up to $500 for OSHA
violations. This was part of the bill as originally drafted and submitted to the Senate
Labor and Human Resources Committee.
Now I find that the Committee, which approved the bill in October in a
straight party-line vote (10 Republicans for and 8 Democrats against), in fact made this
provision worse than it was in the original bill. The Committee majority removed
the $500 limit from worker fines, and set no special limit for this category of fines.
So now the bill as adopted establishes worker violations for
"willful" refusal to wear personal protective gear, such as respirators or ear
plugs. The bill states further that the minimum fine for any willful OSHA violation
would be $5,000. The maximum fine would be $70,000 per willful violation. So if
your boss orders you to wear earplugs and you fail to do so, OSHA can fine you a year or
twos income! Even the $5,000 minimum fine would wipe out most working families
financially. Only a special dispensation from the U.S. Department of Labor would stand
between a working family and financial ruin!
Such fines would be outrageous, and make a mockery of our federal
Occupational Safety and Health law. We cant let this bill pass! Write and visit your
congressperson and Senators. Tell them you want this bill defeated!