OSHA inspections in the construction industry are intended to find and correct significant safety violations on specific worksites – and, thereby, also serve as a deterrent to violations on other sites.

Nevertheless, a series of bills that would undermine OSHA enforcement are now moving through Congress.  In addition, a spectacularly ill-conceived immigration bust last month is sure to further weaken OSHA’s reputation and influence.

“Without effective OSHA enforcement,” says LIUNA General President Terence M. O’Sullivan, “we’re heading back toward the old days when unscrupulous employers put all the responsibility for safety on the workers, taking advantage of the situation to maximize profits at the expense of more responsible competitors.  We need to reaffirm the importance of safety standards and their enforcement because, without enforcement, only ruthlessness prevails.”

Federal Enforcement

In July, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a series of bills sponsored by Charles Norwood (R – GA) that are designed to undermine OSHA’s enforcement capabilities.  The headliner is H.R. 742, the Occupational Safety and Health Small Employer Access to Justice Act.

Like all federal agencies, OSHA is already required by law to pay attorney’s fees and costs in any proceeding in which its charge is not substantially justified, but H.R. 742 would single out OSHA to pay if it loses, even if its charge was justifiable.  Judges and juries decide these cases, and no agency can win every time.  The bill would discourage OSHA from bringing charges unless it is absolutely certain it can win.  Inevitably, this would chill enforcement activity.

The bill has passed the House and has moved to the Senate.

Fake OSHA Meeting Snares Undocumented Workers

Last month, OSHA enforcement was seriously undermined by the “unintended consequences” of a sting operation conducted by the federal Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

The influx of Hispanic workers into the construction industry has raised the rate of Hispanic worker injuries and deaths in part because these workers are afraid to resist unsafe conditions, often due to their undocumented status.  Both OSHA and immigrant worker support groups have urged Hispanic workers to contact the agency about safety violations, saying they have nothing to fear from OSHA with regard to their immigrant status.

In July, however, the ICE lured workers to a gathering in North Carolina by circulating a flyer in English and Spanish announcing a mandatory OSHA safety meeting for contract workers.  When they showed up, dozens of undocumented workers were busted.

While no one has said that ICE intended to discredit OSHA, the sting directly undermines workplace safety, in general, and respect for OSHA among Hispanics, in particular.  The action was denounced by the full spectrum of organizations in the construction industry.

According to OSHA spokesperson Pamela Groover, “This is not something we were involved in, and we do not condone the use of OSHA’s name in this type of activity.”

Allen McNeeley, head of North Carolina’s OSH division, said, “We are dealing with a population of workers who need to know about safety.  Now, they’re going to identify us as entrappers.”

The ICE, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, refused to accept or deny responsibility for the flyer.  However, U.S. Attorney Frank Whitney defended the action saying, “We have to protect the ability of law enforcement to use undercover operations.”