Caution: going to work may still be dangerous to your health

Readable Research | By Abby Ferla |


The Employment and Worker Safety Subcommittee of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee holds a hearing asking,  “Is OSHA Working for Working People?” The hearing is intended to evaluate the proposed “Protecting America’s Worker Act.”

A memorial to the 29 miners killed in 2010 by an explosion at a Massey Energy coal mine in West Virginia. Independent and state investigators found that Massey Energy had neglected safety rules, resulting in poor ventilation, equipment whose safety mechanisms were not functioning, and combustible coal dust “behaving like a line of gunpowder carrying the blast forward in multiple directions.”

Credit: EliasSchewel; Some rights reserved

At the hearing, Margaret Seminario, the director of occupational safety and health for the AFL–CIO, testifies that, while significant progress has been made since the Occupational Safety and Health Act was passed in 1970, progress has slowed: standard-setting and rule making have come to a halt, inspections have declined, and penalties were well under the maximum.

“A combination of too few OSHA inspectors and low penalties make the threat of an OSHA inspection hollow for most employers,” Seminario says. She attributes the slowing of progress in large part to the Bush administration’s preference for voluntary regulation efforts over mandatory standards and industry-wide enforcement initiatives. She also says that OSHA’s weaknesses stem from underreporting, legal hurdles to quickly setting standards, a lack of resources, and inadequacies in the law — among which she names weak protections for whistleblowers and low maximum fines for criminal penalties. No action is taken on the bill.



In a hearing by the Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions asking the question, “Is OSHA Failing to Enforce Construction Safety Rules?,” Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) says that OSHA has been “dangerously ineffective” for the past seven years as a result of emphasizing voluntary enforcement, neglecting standard-setting for dangerous chemicals, and ignoring patterns of tragedy. Experts testifying blame administrative policies that emphasized industry self-policing over federal enforcement of regulations. Sens. Kennedy and Obama also testify, each saying that OSHA needs to be updated and that its staffing and resources have not grown proportionally with increase of American workers or with requirements.


“There are limitations on OSHA’s effectiveness unless Congress makes fundamental changes to the OSH Act, which is a law that has not been updated since it was first passed in 1970.”
— Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), Chairwoman, Subcommittee on Workforce Protections, 2010

March 2010

In a hearing in connection with the reintroduction of the “Protecting America’s Workers Act,” Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections of the Committee on Education, says that OSHA cannot be completely effective until changes are made to expand coverage under the Act, to increase protections for whistleblowers, and to increase penalties for certain violators.

David Michaels, the Labor Department’s assistant secretary for occupational safety and health, testifies that fines for OSHA violations are inadequate, and that the proposal to increase the penalty for willful and repeated violations from the current maximum of $70,000 to a new maximum $250,000 woud not represent an inordinate increase. He notes that the increase, when taking inflation into account, would only return penalties to a level roughly equal to those established in 1990.

Michaels adds that OSHA’s maximum penalties are extraordinarily small compared to the penalties available to other regulatory agencies, citing, among others, the Federal Communications Commission, which can fine a TV or radio station up to $325,000 for indecent content. The reintroduced legislation dies in committee.


August 2010

A GAO report criticizes OSHA for not adequately training its investigators, not investing in standard equipment and resources, and poorly managing its whistleblower protection program. “OSHA lacks sufficient internal controls to ensure that the whistleblower program operates as intended due to several factors, including inconsistent program operations, inadequate tracking of program expenses, and insufficient performance monitoring,” the GAO writes, saying also that whistleblower protections are crucial in the enforcement of safety regulations. OSHA says that it is working to remedy the problems identified. Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.), joined by Reps. George Miller (D-Calif.) and Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), distribute press release noting that, in congressional hearings on large workplace accidents, many employees testified that they had been afraid to report safety hazards to OSHA. OSHA spokesperson Jason Surbey cites “lack of resources” for the persistence of problems in the protection program. Assistant Secretary of Labor David Michaels says that OSHA is currently doing the best that it can with available resources to review and strengthen whistleblower protections.


February 2011

In hearing held by the Subcommittee on Workforce Protections of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce called “Investigating OSHA’s Regulatory Agency and its Impact on Job Creation,” the new chair of the Subcommittee, Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.), says that, under the Obama administration, OSHA has been too focused on punishment and not enough on prevention. Thomas M. Sullivan, an attorney with Nelson Mullins Riley and Scarborough, a large law firm that lobbies for businesses on regulatory issues, tells the committee that the cost per household of complying with federal regulations rose faster over the past two years than the cost per household of healthcare and that federal regulations have excessive impacts on small business.


Send a letter to the editor