Workplace injuries resulted in 4,383 worker deaths in 2012, the second lowest total since the census began in 1992. The leading causes, known as the “fatal four,” were falling, being struck by an object, electrocution, and being caught or trapped. Federal responsibility for reducing these and other workplace hazards belongs to a small agency within the Department of Labor: the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). OSHA’s mission—“to assure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women by setting and enforcing standards and by providing training, outreach, education and assistance”—is carried out from the agency’s D.C. headquarters in the Labor Department’s Frances Perkins Building and from 10 regional and 90 area offices. With a budget of $535,246,000 in FY 2013, OSHA conducted 39,228 federal inspections and helped to fund 50,436 inspections in those states and territories that replace OSHA enforcement with federally approved State Plans.
The first federal legislation to promote worker safety came in 1893, when the Railroad Safety Appliance Act was passed to reduce deaths of brakemen while coupling and uncoupling train cars. In the early 1900s, many states enacted worker compensation laws in response to deaths in mine accidents and elsewhere, but World War II deflected concerns for worker safety even as industrial output, including hazardous chemical production, boomed. Accidents soared, and labor unions seized on growing public health concerns in the 1960s to pressure congress for protective legislation. The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) created OSHA and gave the agency authority to set and enforce workplace health and safety standards. Richard Nixon signed it into law on December 29, 1970.
Under the OSH Act, OSHA can issue workplace health and safety regulations, including requirements for safety procedures and personal protective equipment and limits on chemical exposure. To enforce agency standards, Compliance Safety and Health Officers are sent to inspect worksites, and fines are assessed for violations. OSHA is also responsible for enforcing whistleblower provisions in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act and other legislation. OSHA enforcement can be replaced in states and territories that adopt federally approved safety and health plans equivalent or better than federal standards, and the public sector, mines and certain other workplaces are exempt from inspection. The agency also provides extensive training for workers to help prevent accidents and illness and for employers to help them train workers and to learn how to comply with the OSH Act. Notably, OSHA’s Susan Harwood Training Grant Program each year funds non-profit, faith-based, and community groups in their efforts to educate employees and employers in improving worker health and safety.
Inadequate enforcement and insufficient penalties are frequent criticisms of the agency. The Texas fertilizer plant that exploded in 2013, killing 15 people and destroying or damaging 150 buildings, was last inspected by OSHA in 1985. Cited then for improper storage of anhydrous ammonia, the plant was fined $30. OSHA’s Process Safety Management standard could have required more strict enforcement, but the plant’s owner applied for a retail exemption as a facility with more than 50% sales to end users. OSHA has also been assailed for slow development of new regulations; only four new health and safety standards were issued between 2001 and 2011. The AFL-CIO and other organizations reached a settlement with OSHA to force better protections for workers exposed to a potent carcinogen, hexavalent chromium.
OSHA defends its record by citing reductions in worker deaths, injuries, and illnesses since its founding. For example, on average, 12 workers died per day in 2012 compared with 38 in 1970. The current agency head, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health David Michaels, has focused on strengthening enforcement in high risk industries, improving OSHA’s whistleblower protection program and increasing outreach to populations at greatest risk of workplace injury and illness.
Recent citations against a Texas recycling plant may reflect this greater scrutiny. OSHA’s Site Specific Targeting Program led to inspections of the Jarvis Metal Recycling Plant as a high-hazard workplace, and resulted in 24 health and safety violations and $64,000 in penalties. Serious violations included fall and struck-by hazards, failure to maintain electrical components according to standards, lack of training about lead and cadmium hazards and dangerous noise levels. “It is unacceptable that an employer has chosen to expose workers to preventable hazards,” said Joan Figueora, OSHA’s area director. “It is the employer’s responsibility to find and fix dangers in the workplace.”