Included in the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which established Federal OSHA in 1970, is a section that addresses what states must do when they choose to administer their own State OSH Plans.
“The OSH Act guaranteed all workers a safe workplace,” says LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan, “and it also allowed states to set up their own OSH programs. Some states do a good job, even going beyond the federal requirements. Others have fallen down on the job. Federal OSHA is now stepping in to make sure that nobody’s safety suffers merely because of the state where they work.”
States and jurisdictions that operate State OSH Plans (often referred to as State OSHAs) receive federal funding for which they must provide a match of at least 50 percent. Currently, 27 states and jurisdictions operate State OSH Plans, some of which are just for public employees.
To assure that state plans meet the requirement that they be “at least as effective” as the Federal program, states must submit enforcement plans and annual reviews to Federal OSHA. Federal OSHA is currently drafting new measures that will further assist State OSH Plans in meeting their obligations.
One advantage of State OSH Plans is that standards that are more protective than those federally imposed can be adopted and enforced. Also, all State OSH plans must cover public employees, who remain without coverage in states run by Federal OSHA. In theory, State OSHAs provide workers with protections that they would not otherwise have, and many times, they do just that:
- Virginia and Washington OSHAs have standards for preventing backovers at construction sites, a common hazard for road crews that Federal OSHA does not address. In addition, Washington has a hearing conservation standard that, unlike the Federal OSH standard, covers the construction industry.
- California OSHA has a heat standard. Its Injury and Illness Prevention Program is also the model for a similar program that Federal OSHA wants to adopt.
- Wyoming OSHA requires that all oil and natural gas workers wear fire-resistant clothing when within 75 feet of a drilling site.
- Indiana OSHA has just launched a new safety initiative aimed at reducing the high worker injury and illness rate in health care (but critics say much more needs to be done).
On occasion, however, problems with state-administered OSHAs arise.
- Nevada: Twenty-five workplace fatalities, including six construction workers killed earlier this decade at the CityCenter construction site in Las Vegas, exposed the failure of Nevada OSHA to cite serious, willful and repeat violations of safety regulations. Federal OSHA considered terminating the Nevada program but opted to open a Las Vegas office to provide additional oversight. Since then, Nevada OSHA has added to its roster of inspectors and is conducting more inspections. In addition, inspectors must issue higher level citations in at least half of their inspections.
- Arizona: A state regulation stipulates that, in residential construction, fall protection be provided when employees work at heights of 15 or more feet. Federal OSHA requires that fall protection be provided at six feet. Despite the nine foot differential, Arizona OSHA argues that its rule does comply with the “at least as effective” language of the OSH Act. State officials say they will not revise the regulation despite a Complaint About State Program Administration (CASPA) filed by the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) that precipitated a demand by Federal OSHA that they do so. Discussions between the two agencies continue.
- Michigan: Since Republicans took control of Michigan’s state government, they modified state law so that, henceforth, workplace safety rules that surpass Federal OSHA standards can be imposed only when a specific circumstance has demonstrated its necessity “or when a broad consensus of union and nonunion employers and employees agree.” Changes in MIOSH regulations are expected.
Despite divergence and contention between state and federal programs, it is clear that OSHA plans of both kinds have made workplaces safer. In 1970, the year Congress passed the OSH Act, 14,000 workers went off to their jobs and never came home. Today, even though the work force has grown, that figure has dropped to 4,600.
“This is a vast improvement,” says O’Sullivan, “but it shows that OSHA’s work – state and federal – still has a long way to go.”
[Janet Lubman Rathner]