Is OSHA driving U.S. jobs overseas?

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During a Jan. 26 House Education and the Workforce Committee hearing, members heard testimony on how federal regulations may or may not hurt the economy and prospects for job creation. Workplace safety and health was not the focus of the hearing and, for the most part, only Democrats discussed the issue.

But following a brief exchange between Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) and Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell (R) about the role of regulations and enforcement and the benefits to public safety, newly elected Rep. Todd Rokita (R-IN) had this to say:

“It’s also true, isn’t it, that we can develop a regulation – or a 1,000 – that protects everyone, do things to make sure no one gets killed, and watch every single job that’s left in this country go to China. … In a free society, in a free republic, if we are to keep it, sometimes bad things happen to very good people. It can’t be the mission of the federal government at every turn to try to stop it because it will fail.”

This is quite a bold statement, to suggest we could lose our freedom and that jobs will be driven overseas if the federal government tries to stop all “bad things” such as deaths from happening and so should, therefore, not be the government’s mission.

Except that, in the case of OSHA, it is the mission of the federal government to try to stop such deaths:

“To assure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women.”

That’s the first line of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, a document as old as the Indiana congressman himself.

I understand Rokita’s underlying point – we shouldn’t issue regulations requiring everyone to be encased in bubble wrap. Doing so would be overkill, likely ineffective and certainly counterproductive.

But I can’t help but view his comments as a bit cynical. As many safety professionals will assert, no workplace injury, death or incident is unavoidable. In an article published in the July 2010 issue of Safety+Health magazine, more than 50 percent of respondents to an informal National Safety Council survey believed the goal of zero injuries was possible.

“If we all watch out for each other and stop unsafe acts and fix unsafe conditions, zero is achievable,” one respondent said.

Obviously, such a goal is highly dependent on employers and employees themselves; the federal government can’t do it all, but to suggest it shouldn’t play a role ignores four decades of history. Since the OSH Act was signed into law, there has been an ongoing trend of declining nonfatal injury and illness rates in this country; fatality rates also have been on the decline.

Because of federal regulation, we have safety belt requirements, fall protection standards, personal protective equipment requirements – I could go on and on. Federal government regulations have been successful in helping save lives and reduce injuries and illnesses. How successful is certainly open for debate, as is whether or not some regulations are too burdensome or ineffective – or not strong enough.

I e-mailed Rokita’s office to ask the congressman to elaborate on what he said during the hearing, particularly concerning his thoughts on OSHA’s mission. A spokesperson for the congressman said Rokita “stands by his statement” and was unavailable for additional comment.

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