"I have here before me a pile of news clips collected over the last couple of weeks describing workers, men and women, young and old who have been crushed, electrocuted, burned, or who have died in falls, trench collapses and forklift accidents. These are the invisible relentless daily tragedies of the American workplace." -- OSHA Administrator David Michaels, April 27
Coal miners and oil drillers may not have been on T.S. Eliot's mind when he penned "The Wasteland," but April was surely the cruelest month for those who work in two of the most dangerous jobs in America. Last month saw the two biggest disasters in those industries in decades, with 29 miners dying in the Upper Big Branch mine explosion on April 5 and 11 workers killed in the oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20.
In the wake of the tragedies, headlines have been dominated by searing accounts of these workers' last moments, lawmakers are demanding investigations and the public is looking for heads to roll at the mining conglomerate, Massey Energy, and the oil giant BP.
In addition, many have blamed the government agencies that are supposed to regulate these industries for letting the companies get away with safety violations and for not mandating better safety procedures.
On a larger scale, these tragic accidents reflect the failure of our regulatory system to protect worker safety and health, according to safety experts and former regulators.
In the face of a corporate backlash and lack of media coverage, the current system has been progressively weakened over the last few decades and safety advocates fear that the Obama administration is not doing enough to strengthen such protections.
Since it was established almost 40 years ago, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which guarantees every American a safe and healthful working environment, has had an immeasurable impact -- the job fatality rate has fallen 80 percent since 1970 and injury rates have also fallen dramatically.
But many workers are still killed on the job -- 5,214 died in 2008, which doesn't count the number who died from occupational diseases -- and the agency has been blamed for failing to keep up with the times. Safety standards for some serious hazards -- such as exposure to toxic chemicals -- have not been updated since 1971. In addition, the understaffed agency only has 2,218 inspectors for over 130 million workers in the country.
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"The safety and health prevention system for workers is a dinosaur," says Celeste Monforton, Assistant Research Professor at GWU School of Public Health. "It hasn't been updated in 40 years. There is a very strong anti-regulatory bent in this country, and when these types of tragedies take place, people say, "How could this happen?" People don't realize that without safety and health protections for workers -- and an appreciation for what they can do -- it's no wonder that these things happen."
Monforton, who previously worked at OSHA, says that the agency has not been successful over the last 20 years in issuing regulations; the last rules covering refinery workers, for instance, haven't been updated since 1989. Monforton also cites the agency's reaction to the 2008 Imperial Sugar refinery explosion, which killed 14 workers and injured over 40 when sugar dust ignited, prompting recommendations to regulate exposure to combustible dust. "There hasn't been any change," she says, adding that the firm "hasn't paid a dime in their penalty."
A spokesman for OSHA did not return an email for comment regarding Imperial Sugar and the combustible dust issue in time for publication.
These problems are exacerbated by resistance from many businesses to safety regulations -- as HuffPost first reported last week, BP and other oil producers have fought proposed safety regulations for years and Massey Energy challenged hundreds of violations cited by federal inspectors.
Describing workers "who have been crushed, electrocuted, burned, or who have died in falls, trench collapses and forklift accidents" as "the invisible relentless daily tragedies of the American workplace," OSHA director David Michael, in testimony before Congress, blamed businesses that ignore safety regulations. "Too often, we see employers who assess the benefits of refusing to comply with the law and compare them to the costs of complying with the law. If they find that the costs of compliance outweigh the penalties they will face if caught, they opt to gamble with their workers' lives. This is a "catch me if you can" approach to safety and health. It is what we saw in action at Upper Big Branch and what we at OSHA see far too often in the workplaces we visit."
Michaels conceded that OSHA is hamstrung, since the law has not been updated and penalties haven't been increased in 20 years, announcing that the agency just launched a new enforcement strategy requiring each employer to implement an injury and illness prevention program.