When the Republican Congress reversed OSHA’s ergonomics standard in the 1990s, it also tarnished the agency’s image, painting OSHA as a poster child for federal regulation run amok. When the Bush Administration took over in 2000, that verdict was reinforced in the agency’s policy and programs. Standards-setting slowed to a crawl.

The strategy worked because in some corners of the construction industry – and other industries as well – companies fear federal regulation. It is seen as the bureaucracy imposing excessive requirements (and costs) on the nation’s businesses.

Here at the LHSFNA, we have complaints about OSHA, but we have no quarrel with its mission, per se. On the contrary, we know federal regulation is a reasonable necessity that blocks the extreme measures to which unscrupulous companies would otherwise stoop to win competition in the marketplace. Regulation sets a certain bar. Workplace safety and health must be a given­ – part of the bottom line – for all contractors.

Union Sector Leads

A big part of the understanding between LIUNA and its signatory partners is recognition that safe workplaces are good for workers and good for business. With the creation of the Laborers-AGC Education and Training Fund in the late 1960s and the LHSFNA in the late 1980s, our partnership advanced the forward edge of safety implementation across the United States and Canada. The advent of OSHA in the 1970s helped codify, systematize and broaden application of the nation’s emerging safety awareness and understanding.

However, while our labor-management partnership moved forward, many companies – particularly in the nonunion sector – did not keep up, due to ignorance or greed. Their jobsites are dangerous and their workers are injured unnecessarily. If claims are properly reported, their workers’ compensation and other operating costs are high, but they make up the difference through depressed wages, benefits and training expenses. More often, injuries go unreported and, sometimes, employees are misclassified to reduce compensation premiums. In effect, these companies put the cost of health and safety that is shared between

LIUNA and its signatory employers fully onto the backs of their nonunion, often immigrant workers.

LIUNA and its signatory employers are committed to maintaining and improving occupational safety and health, especially in the construction industry, one of the most dangerous in North America. Outside the union sector, however, LIUNA and its signatory employers rely on OSHA – on federal regulation – to set the minimum level of performance necessary to ensure basic safety throughout the country. Such minimal standards protect workers and ensure a level playing field as union and nonunion contractors compete for work.

Safety Politics

Since the Bush Administration took office seven years ago, however, OSHA has stepped back from its traditional role in setting standards. Instead, it has increasingly shifted agency resources into education and cooperative programs. While many of these programs have outstanding merits, the failure to set standards, especially in construction, has made work more dangerous and helped tilt the market toward nonunion employers.

After the last fall’s return of Democratic Party majorities in Congress, both houses held hearings in April on OSHA’s performance and Senator Ted Kennedy (D – MA) and Representative Lynn Woolsey (D – CA) introduced the Protecting America’s Workers Act. Though the bill, if passed in Congress, has little chance of surviving a Presidential veto, its introduction signals an opportunity, particularly after the 2008 Presidential election, to refocus OSHA’s wandering eye on standards and enforcement. We look forward to that.

In the meantime, we continue to cooperate and struggle with OSHA on all fronts – from its standards-setting agenda to enforcement to its Alliance and Voluntary Protection Programs. This spring has been a busy season with OSHA and, in this issue, we highlight some of our activity.

Perched in the midst of vast, competing and politically powerful interests, OSHA is bound never to satisfy everyone. While we look forward to progress in the years ahead, for now we strive to get the most out of what OSHA currently provides – even as we keep up the pressure of our ongoing critique.