Center for Progressive Reform

Worker Safety

Is OSHA Up to the Job?

The American workplace has changed dramatically over the last two decades, and so have the inherent hazards for workers. New, bigger, more powerful equipment has come online. New chemicals and other toxic substances have come into routine use. New production and construction methods have been introduced.

Created in 1971, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, OSHA, is charged with protecting workers in the workplace by adopting regulations on a range of health and safety topics and enforcing those regulations, even to the point of pursuing criminal violations of the law. In its early years, OSHA aggressively attacked the myriad safety problems in American workplaces, to great effect – fewer injuries and fewer deaths. But the war on regulation launched during the Reagan years began a steady decline in OSHA’s ambition and effectiveness, and progress preventing workplace injuries has stopped.

Today, OSHA casts an exceedingly small shadow on the American workplace. It has been starved of the resources it needs to keep up with regulatory challenges and burdened with analytical requirements by adverse court decisions and congressional action. The result is that new safety standards can take a decade or more to implement, and enforcement of existing standards is sporadic at best.


Winning Safer Workplaces

On average, more than 10 U.S. workers die every day on the job, the result of workplace accidents or exposures. Hundreds of thousands more are injured or made ill. Those numbers are far better than they once were, but nowhere near as low as they could and should be, and OSHA is hobbled in its ability to develop and enforce needed safeguards. A policy manual from CPR aims to help state and local groups succeed where OSHA cannot.

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Advocating for (not so) Small Business

For many Americans, the term "small business" conjures up images of mom-and-pop grocery stores, garage-based Internet start-ups and the like. They're out there, creating jobs and inventing tomorrow's commerce, but Washington lobbyists have a different idea of "small."

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Food, Drug and Product Safety

How safe is the food we eat? How safe and effective are the drugs we take and the medical devices we use? These are questions one might expect the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food & Drug Administration to answer with quick and reassuring replies. Not so. CPR Member Scholars have written extensively on the topic.

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OSHA Stuck in Neutral

OSHA's inability to keep up with mounting workplace hazards is no accident. Opponents of regulation and those who would rather preserve profit than worker safety have powerful voices in Washington lobbying on their behalf. But standing up to such big-moneyed interests is OSHA's job, and American workers deserve nothing less.

Contingent Workers 

In January 2013, CPR Member Scholars focused on an emerging worker safety problem: industry's growing reliance on "contingent labor" — day laborers working construction jobs or hotel housekeepers on temporary contracts, for example. According to At the Company’s Mercy: Protecting Contingent Workers from Unsafe Working Conditions, by Member Scholars Martha McCluskey, Thomas McGarity and Sidney Shapiro, and Senior Policy Analyst Matthew Shudtz, because employers who hire workers on a contingent basis do not directly pay for workers’ compensation and health insurance, they lack sufficient incentives to eliminate workplace hazards. Specifically, companies using continent workers are likely to be insulated from the insurance premium increases resulting from the costs of workers’ injuries, and as a result, they are immune to the financial incentives to eliminate on-the-job hazards.

The white paper looks at worker safety threats in four realms in which contingent work is growing or already common: construction, farm work, warehouse labor hired indirectly through staffing agencies, and hotel housekeepers working through temp firms. In each of these examples, employment can be contingent on short-term fluctuations in demand. Too often, workers in these fields see little job security, low wages, minimal opportunities for advancement, and, all too often, hazardous working conditions. Moreover, employer-based health insurance is a rarity for contingent workers. When hazards lead to work-related injuries, the contingent nature of the employment relationship can exacerbate the negative consequences for the injured worker and society. The worker might quickly find herself out of a job and, depending on the severity of the injury, the prospects for new employment slim. In the absence of health insurance, the costs of treating injuries can be financially devastating, and are typically shifted to the public at large.

The report concludes with a series of recommendations aimed at Congress and OSHA. The authors call on Congress to adopt legislation empowering workers to bring suit against violators of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, rather than relying solely on regulatory agencies to identify and pursue violations. The report's recommendations for OSHA include:

  • Requiring better education and training for contingent workers;
  • Strengthening enforcement of existing regulations affecting industries in which contingent workers are common;
  • Issuing ergonomics standards for affected industries;  and
  • Enhancing the foreign-language capabilities of its staff so they can better serve the contingent work force.

The Next OSHA

In July 2012 CPR published The Next OSHA: Progressive Reforms to Empower Worker, by CPR Member Scholars Martha McCluskey, Thomas McGarity, Sidney Shapiro, and Rena Steinzor, and Senior Policy Analyst Matthew Shudtz (press release). The white paper says it is past time to update the safety laws: "A transformative law at the time it was passed, the OSH Act has not proved nimble enough to address the evolving challenges faced by U.S. workers." The paper proposes a series of changes to the Occupational Safety and Health Act, its implementing regulations, and agency policies that could better empower workers to ensure safe and healthy workplaces. It recommends, for example, changing the law to allow injured workers to directly sue a negligent employer, increasing the fines OSHA can charge to deter negligent employers from cutting corners on safety, and increasing OSHA’s meager budget by implementing a “user fee” on employers to fund certain safety programs that directly benefit them. 

In October 2010 and June 2011, CPR organized symposia to engage the occupational health and safety community in a discussion about the future of OSHA and its sister agencies.  These meetings provided a chance for a broad group of academics, union representatives, non-union worker advocates, and government officials to reflect on the first 40 years of OSHA's life, with an eye toward the future.  Recognizing OSHA's strengths and aiming to improve upon them, the meetings focused largely on enforcement and rulemaking. 

Participants at the sessions discussed ways OSHA could improve inspection targeting to protect the most vulnerable workers and go after "bad actor" employers.  Expansion of criminal enforcement was also a focal point in the discussion.  On the rulemaking front, participants explored new ideas for streamlining the regulatory process so that OSHA might create standards to reflect new knowledge about existing occupational hazards and evidence of emerging hazards.  Participants also discussed how OSHA might expand its role in educating workers, reflecting CPR Member Scholars’ view that empowering the workforce is key to a safety in the workplace. 

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© Center for Progressive Reform, 2013