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Fairy Tales
From Washington

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 don’t 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 don’t 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 you’ve never had it so good, don’t believe them for a minute. Lost-time injury rates, the most reliable OSHA figures we have, haven’t changed much in decades. When these begin to fall and keep falling, then maybe we’ll have something to celebrate. Until then, pardon us if we’re 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 two’s 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 can’t let this bill pass! Write and visit your congressperson and Senators. Tell them you want this bill defeated!

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