Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

After 8 Years of Bush Neglect, Job Safety Gets New Boost from Obama, Solis

April 1st, 2010 | Mike Hall

Image: Mike HallA little more than a year after taking office, the Obama administration and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis have taken significant steps to repair the damage to workplace safety and health left behind after eight years of the Bush administration.

With Workers Memorial Day (April 28) approaching, this is a good time to look at the progress made since the “the new sheriff” hit town. (Click here for fact sheets, fliers, posters, stickers and other Workers Memorial Day materials.)

As Esther Kaplan writes in the Nation:

During the Bush years, the Department of Labor became a cautionary tale about what happens when foxes are asked to guard the henhouse.

For eight years under the Bush Administration, corporate officials and management representatives headed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). Bush’s first MSHA head, David Lauriski, was chief safety officer at Emery Mining’s Wilberg, Utah, mine in 1984 when an explosion killed 27 coal miners. The blast,  says Kaplan, “was later attributed to numerous violations at the mine.”

The owners, it turned out, had been trying for a one-day production record…Seventeen years after the disaster, Lauriski became George W. Bush’s first mine safety chief, a perch from which he halted a dozen new safety regulations initiated under [the] Clinton [administration], advocating instead a more “collaborative” approach with industry.

Today, MSHA is headed up by Joe Main who began work in the mines when he was 19, became a local union safety committeeman, a safety inspector in the Mine Workers (UMWA) Safety and Health Department and eventually is director.

At OSHA, Bush’s last administrator, Edwin Foulke, was former partner at the notorious anti-union law firm Jackson Lewis. He so strongly opposed workplace safety and health laws The New York Times labeled him “an antiregulatory ideologue.”

Contrast Foulke with David Michaels, Obama’s choice as OSHA administrator. Michaels is an occupational safety and health expert, co-founder of the New York Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH) and epidemiologist at George Washington University.

Under Bush, OSHA and MSHA emphasized voluntary compliance programs over strong enforcement of workplace safety and health regulations. When they issued penalties, the employers often negotiated down the fines, which were negligible to begin with.

Now, both OSHA and MSHA have stepped up enforcement, assessing large penalties against employers with serious, repeated and willful violations. In October, OSHA levied the largest fine in its history-$87 million against BP Products for failing to correct the safety problems that caused a 2005 explosion that killed 15 workers and injured another 170 people at a Texas City oil refinery.

OSHA also is strengthening its enforcement program to focus more on repeated violators and to develop corporate-wide approaches to enforcement.  It’s launched a national investigation in the under reporting of injuries and employer practices that discourage workers from reporting job injuries.

During the eight-year run of the Bush administration, not only did OSHA and MSHA put the brakes on new safety and health rules laws in the pipeline when they took office, neither agency issued any new standard unless forced by the courts or Congress. OSHA is now moving forward with rules on silica, cranes and derricks, hazard communication, combustible dust and other workplace hazards.

The Bush administration presided over the repeal of the nation’s first ergonomics standard and made it so that OSHA’s hands tied to set a new ergonomics rule. But the agency now has proposed changes in the injury recordkeeping rule to reinstate a requirement, repealed by the Bush administration, for employers to identify musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) on the workplace injury log.

At MSHA, new rules to limit exposure to coal dust and silica and to address increases in lung disease among miners are top priorities. Main also told Kaplan that MSHA will identify the top risk factors  that lead to mining deaths and injuries and help educate mining companies on how to eliminate them, but not as a substitute for enforcement.

We’ll provide assistance to the mine operators who do need it, .but never as a replacement to the enforcement tools. There was some confusion about that in recent years. I’m not confused about that.

Both safety agencies suffered drastic cuts in budget and personnel (especially in inspection and personnel) under the Bush administration. The Obama administration has restored those cuts and its FY 2011 budget includes some modest increases.

Employers’ rights appeared paramount in the Bush OSHA and MSHA. Today both agencies have established programs focusing on workers’ rights, including whistleblower and anti-discrimination protections and better worker access to fatality and injury.

The Obama administration also is backing congressional efforts to improve workplace safety and health laws, including the Protecting America’s Workers Act (H.R. 2067 and S. 1580), which toughens penalties, expands OSHA coverage to public-sector workers, strengthens anti-discrimination protections and expands workers’ rights.

It’s likely the same corporate and Republican forces that blocked improvements in workplace safety and health will fight this legislation and each and every new safety initiative.

So this Workers Memorial Day, along with honoring workers killed and injured on the job and demanding good, safe jobs with decent wages, health and retirement security and a voice on the job, workers will continue the fight for strong new safety and health protections.

*This post originally appeared in AFL-CIO blog on March 18, 2009. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log. I came to the AFL- CIO in 1989 and have written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety. When my collar was still blue, I carried union cards from the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers, American Flint Glass Workers and Teamsters for jobs in a chemical plant, a mining equipment manufacturing plant and a warehouse. I’ve also worked as roadie for a small-time country-rock band, sold my blood plasma and played an occasional game of poker to help pay the rent. You may have seen me at one of several hundred Grateful Dead shows. I was the one with longhair and the tie-dye. Still have the shirts, lost the hair.

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