OSHA: The minimum wage of safety

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OSHA has been called several things – “safety cop,” “partner,” “standard setter” and probably a few other names not fit for print.

But a very interesting way to think about OSHA and its standards is as agency administrator David Michaels put it the other day.

“Our standards, in many ways, are like the minimum wage,” he said during a panel event April 21 sponsored by the Center for American Progress. “We say you have to do certain things because we know they will prevent injuries or prevent fatalities, but most responsible employers … understand to really protect the workers, you go beyond the standards.”

Just as the federal minimum wage requires employers to compensate employees a minimum amount, OSHA standards require employers to provide employees with a certain minimum amount of safety. Unfortunately, using this analogy, the frame work of the “minimum wage” of safety hasn’t seen a significant increase in 40 years.

As several people mentioned during the panel, the Occupational Safety and Health Act is by and large the same document it was in 1971. Yes, new standards and tweaks have been made here and there, but the criminal provisions and whistleblower protections are, for the most part, the same as they were 40 years ago.

Many safety standards themselves are equally outdated, particularly those pertaining to chemicals. The process OSHA must undertake to develop new regulations is so bogged down – a process only Congress can change – that it takes a decade or longer to promulgate any new standard.

In 1971, the minimum wage was $1.60 an hour. Can you imagine if that was still the case instead of the $7.25 it is today?

Many states exceed the federal minimum wage requirement, just as many states exceed federal safety laws by running their own program. And, of course, employers can choose to exceed the minimum standards for both wage and safety, and many do.

But shouldn’t we keep pushing for the bar to be set higher? It’s long past the time to update this important law and issue new or updated standards for the modern era. We wouldn’t expect someone to be able to live off $1.60 an hour today, and we shouldn’t be satisfied to protect the lives of workers with a 40-year-old law.

Check out the June issue of Safety+Health magazine, where I’ll write more on OSHA’s 40th anniversary in the “Washington Update” column.

The opinions expressed in “Washington Wire” do not necessarily reflect those of the National Safety Council or affiliated local Chapters.

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