The creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in 1971 was the culmination of many years of struggle by organized labor and occupational health and safety professionals who expected the new agency to sharply reduce the tide of workplace injuries and fatalities.

OSHA Recommendations*

  1. OSHA needs to target inspections better. David Weil’s paper is a good start (see OSHA Targeting Struggles for Coherence, Method).
  2. If third parties are deputized to conduct audits or allow self-inspections, a way must be found to keep them independent and give workers the same rights they would have under an OSHA inspection.
  3. OSHA and BLS need to improve auditing, especially to eliminate under-reporting of injuries.
  4. Whistleblower protections need to be revamped if we are ever to make headway in reducing the risk to Hispanic and immigrant workers.
  5. Standard setting is woefully inadequate, in large part due to OSHA’s under funding and the handcuffs Congress put on over the last decade. Congress needs to make it easier for OSHA to regulate and give the agency deadlines and resources to adopt standards.

* Scott Schneider is the LSHFNA Occupational Safety and Health Division Director.

Thirty-five years later, few of these early supporters are happy with the agency’s progress.

Some find it tempting to blame OSHA’s problems on an orientation imposed by the Republicans after they took control of Congress in 1992 – an orientation later consolidated with Republican President George Bush’s election in 2000.

Yet, one need not ascribe politics as the reason for OSHA’s ineffectiveness to have an interest in improving its work. The ongoing tide of unnecessary workplace injuries and deaths is reason enough. Nevertheless, with the election of a Democratic Congress last fall and with the certainty of a new President in 2008, many critics now believe the time is ripe to re-evaluate the agency’s history and reconsider its plans for the future.

Thus, Michael Silverstein, MD, MPH – a Clinical Professor of Environmental and Occupational Health at the University of Washington, a former director of Washington State’s OSH program, a former Director of Policy at federal OSHA and a former assistant director of the United Auto Workers’ OSH Department – summarized his critique in a 48-page paper, Getting Home Safe and Sound: OSHA at Thirty-Five, and invited others to comment.

When Silverstein’s critique attracted attention, it was published on the Defending Science website of the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP) which subsequently decided to use a new blog – “The Pump Handle, a water cooler for the public health crowd” – to encourage further comment and discussion.

That discussion is now unfolding, leading up first to OSHA’s 36th anniversary this spring (April 28) and then, possibly, on to OSHA reform in the years ahead.

Feel free to join the debate.

[Steve Clark]