Washington Update: Creating a new norm

It has been 40 years since OSHA first opened its doors, and the country is a much different place today.

A plethora of rules, regulations and required procedures to keep workers safe and healthy on the job exist now that did not in 1970, and fewer people are dying or being injured at work because of them.

In addition, the way people have thought about safety has changed since OSHA’s inception. Fewer people think of workplace injuries as an unavoidable occupational hazard, more workers are demanding a safe work environment, and more employers are striving to improve the safety of their employees.

“We created a new normal,” OSHA administrator David Michaels said.

Speaking April 21 at a Center for American Progress panel on OSHA’s 40th anniversary, Michaels used the example of facemasks and gloves in the dental industry. Before the bloodborne pathogens standard was implemented, the industry warned that using gloves would interfere with procedures, and masks would frighten children. Now, it would be a scary sight if a dentist did not use a mask or gloves.

Michaels’ comments were echoed by Peg Seminario, director of safety and health at the AFL-CIO. “When I look at OSHA, where I think it’s made a huge difference is through its standards and setting those new norms of performance,” she said. In fact, Seminario said, some industries might not even pay much attention to safety and health if standards did not exist.

Unfortunately, the difficult process for promulgating regulations means few new regulations have been issued recently, leading to few new norms being created. This can lead to a reduced focus on safety and health, Seminario warned.

“Without those new norms and with so much competitive pressure on employers, they’re not putting the same focus, necessarily, on safety and health, particularly on a corporate level,” she said.

An aged law

The length of time in setting new standards is compounded by the age of the original Occupational Safety and Health Act. Now more than 40 years old, the law has become out of date but difficult to change.

Michaels noted that the law has several shortcomings:

  • Protections from older hazards are inadequate, while knowledge of emerging hazards such as ergonomics is growing
  • Antiquated chemical standards
  • A growing service sector bringing its own unique hazards
  • Maximum fines for most violations remain at 1970-era levels
  • OSHA’s small staff is responsible for millions of worksites
  • Millions of employees still are without OSHA protection

“Our challenge every day is how to make this 40-year-old law work effectively in today’s economy,” Michaels said.

Changing the OSH Act to allow for greater penalties, more staff, more coverage or an easier path to rulemaking all requires action from Congress. Aside from a few stalwarts dedicated to the cause of strengthening the law, Congress has shown an inability to act on the matter.

Recent attempts to change the law have been met by assertions that changes would result in the agency becoming too powerful and punishing worksites based on unnecessary regulations. Michaels pointed out at the panel that throughout its history, OSHA always received a negative reaction when the agency attempted to create a new standard.

“Every standard sort of has that same history,” he said. “We create this new normal, but getting there is always a great struggle.”

Michaels said discussions on new standards need to be based on the evidence behind why a standard may or may not be necessary, while avoiding the rhetoric of standards not being necessary or costing too much.

Washington is a place where debates on important matters are far too often based on rhetoric and not substance. But with the lives of hard-working people on the line, it would be nice to see the typical discourse change so improvements and updates can be made to what has become a weak law.

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




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