Reminiscent of the battle to establish OSHA itself – which succeeded 40 years ago this month – two recent proposals by OSHA Director David Michaels have provoked fierce resistance from the ideological opponents of workplace safety regulation.

From the Chamber of Commerce 40 Years Ago:

Imagine yourself sitting in your office a few months from today. A young man barges in. You recognize him as a man you once refused to hire. He had no education and no potential talent you could use. His main experience consisted of cashing welfare checks.

But he shows you that he is now a representative of the federal government—an “inspector” with the Department of Labor.

And he threatens to padlock your gates and have you fined $1,000 a day if you don’t do as he says.

The young man – who knows nothing about your business – then tramps through your plant, without a warrant, ordering you to take costly steps to improve “safety and health.

Such scenes could be duplicated throughout the county should a new proposal being deliberated on Capitol Hill be signed into law.

Nation’s Business, April, 1968.

One proposal is OSHA’s announced intention to adopt an Injury and Illness Prevention Program (I2P2) standard, which would require all employers to maintain comprehensive workplace safety programs. The other proposal would update the agency’s interpretation of its noise enforcement policy to require employers to prioritize use of “feasible administrative or engineering controls” over personal protective equipment such as ear plugs.

Fear Tactics

Reacting to the proposals, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) are trying to blunt support by claiming the proposals will cut jobs during the current economic downturn.

Typical is the NAM’s comment on the noise policy: “Should OSHA’s new proposal be implemented, manufacturers would be forced to make sweeping changes to their workplaces – including diverting resources away from jobs toward costly new practices and equipment….” No matter what, regulation is always the problem.

Forty years ago, after 14,000 workplace fatalities in both 1968 and 1969, these same business lobbyists raised an avalanche of emotional criticism (see sidebar) when unions and other forces sought federal action. However, against the backdrop of the civil rights and anti-war schisms then roiling the nation, President Richard Nixon took a different tack. Sensing a means to draw “hardhats” to his side, he abandoned his business allies and endorsed the principle of national health and safety standards. Congress then formulated the Occupational Safety and Health Act, proposing (1) a new agency – OSHA – to devise and enforce workplace safety standards, (2) an independent, Presidentially appointed body – the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission (OSHRC) – to oversee OSHA’s enforcement program and (3) the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to investigate and analyze OSH issues. The Chamber folded its opposition, and on December 29, 1970, the bill passed the Senate on voice vote (no debate) and the House by a margin of 308 to 60.

Progress Slipping

Despite the Chamber’s dire predictions, the nation saw significant reductions in injuries and fatalities after OSHA’s creation, but in more recent years, success leveled off. For instance, between 1970 and 1992, annual worker fatalities were cut by 55 percent (from 14,000 to 6,217), but from 1992 to 2008, the rate dropped only 16 percent (from 6,217 to 5,214).

Need an I2P2?

The LHSFNA’s Occupational Safety and Health Division staff is working with LIUNA and the Building and Construction Trades Department on a model I2P2 and is developing testimony for OSHA on its proposed standard.

In addition, the OSH staff provides consultation and guidance to participating LIUNA signatory employers who request help developing a company I2P2. Call 202-628-5465.

One reason progress slowed was renewed campaigning against federal regulation by business interests in the 1990s. One prominent casualty was OSHA’s ergonomics standard which was killed by Congress in 2001.

Now, OSHA’s I2P2 and noise proposals have NAM and the Chamber again crying wolf, insisting that these regulatory initiatives will impose unfair costs on businesses and cut jobs.

Advancing Safety Culture

With regard to the I2P2 standard, however, Michaels knows that further reductions in workplace fatalities require innovation in OSHA’s program. OSHA’s enforcement budget will never allow regular inspection of more than a relative handful – about 40,000 annually – of the nation’s millions of worksites. While inspections are necessary to spur compliance, the main focus, Michaels suggests, must be on building a proactive safety culture in each American workplace.

The way to do that is to require employers to develop Injury and Illness Prevention Programs that are particular to the nature of work performed at their worksites. Already, OSHA standards require employers to provide a safe workplace. The question is how do employers find and fix potential hazards? One way is when an injury reveals a hazard; the other way is to survey the worksite to find and fix hazards before someone gets hurt.

By requiring I2P2s of all employers, OSHA intends to institutionalize the second approach.Most employers will comply, thereby putting additional consideration into workplace safety and health, while the threat of an OSHA inspection will spur safety planning even among complacent, reluctant or defiant employers.

The net result will be raised vigilance about dangers in every workplace, including efforts to identify specific problems and focus attention on addressing them. Moreover, competitiveness and jobs will be unaffected because every employer will have the same obligation under the rule.

Several state OSHAs already require I2P2s, and these rules have not blocked in-state companies from remaining competitive in the national market. The cost of safety turns out to be not all that expensive. Indeed, employers find that by adopting an active safety culture and developing I2P2s to identify and address problems before injuries occur, they actually save money and become more competitive.

Noise Control

Given the widespread problem of hearing loss among American workers, the flack over OSHA’s reinterpretation of its noise standard reflects callousness and intransigence within the business sector. Despite decades of technological advances that make engineering and administrative noise controls ever more feasible, NAM and the Chamber insist that “feasible” is a matter for individual employers to decide. In contrast, OSHA wants to make employers use noise abatement solutions whenever practical.

Against the no-regulation-is-best recklessness of NAM and the Chamber of Commerce, the battle over these two OSHA initiatives may shape up as the defining moment in this generation’s struggle for workplace health and safety. In this confrontation, even Richard Nixon knew better.

[Steve Clark]