Center for Public Integrity makes a strong case for more regulation and better enforcement

Business groups and conservatives constantly attack the federal government for overregulating. They claim that businesses are “drowning in a sea of regulations” and that job creation and profitability are being sacrificed in favor of a nanny state. Workplace safety rules, in particular, have been a favorite target of the Chamber of Commerce and other business associations, but the fact is that the federal government regulates too little, not too much. Most of the 4,500 workplace fatalities and 50,000 occupational disease deaths each year could be prevented with better rules, more diligent employers, and better enforcement by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The Center for Public Integrity has begun publishing Hard Labor, a series of articles exploring this reality, and the first two stories make for compelling reading. One describes the consequences of OSHA’s inability to issue a combustible dust standard to protect against the kind of fires and explosions that have killed 130 workers since 1980, injured another 800-plus, and caused more than 450 accidents. Factory managers ignore hazards in plain sight—for example, piles of metallic dust that crackle with static electricity and ignite into small fires every week. Nothing is done to prevent the build-up, despite the past occurrence of catastrophic explosions at the same company that left some workers dead and others with gruesome, debilitating injuries. Finally, the critical elements come together and instead of a small fire, another terrible explosion occurs as airborne dust ignites, and more workers die from horrendous burns.

OSHA has no standard that addresses this hazard in spite of the pleas of union representatives and the urgings of the federal Chemical Safety Board, which has jurisdiction to investigate explosions and recommend preventive standards but has no power to issue them. OSHA hasn’t regulated, and workers continue to be burned, disfigured and killed unnecessarily.

Industry representatives resist any new standard, reflexively making the same tired arguments about flexibility and cost they always make. But as the story points out, in the case of grain dust explosions, an industry that fought OSHA’s efforts to issue a standard now realizes that the standard has saved workers’ lives and saved the companies money. The National Grain and Feed Association, which at one point sued OSHA to block the grain dust rule, recognizes today that the standard was win-win regulation, and that the grain industry is financially better off as a result of the rule and the unprecedented reduction in deaths and injuries it achieved.

The second Hard Labor story focused on the weakness of OSHA’s enforcement of the rules it already has on the books. Violations that cause the death of a worker result in an average fine of less than $9,000, and companies contest every citation, no matter how justified. The chances of an executive being indicted as a criminal for intentional or recklessly indifferent acts or omissions that kill their employees are infinitesimal, and the penalties are tougher for someone who harasses a wild burro on federal land than for an employer who sends a worker into a known hazard that causes the worker’s death.

The Center for Public Integrity is doing a real service by publishing these stories that reveal just how weak OSHA’s standards and enforcement are, and how light the regulatory burden that OSHA imposes really is. In the case of workplace safety and health, we need more regulation, not less.