An interesting article in the New York Times discussed an important criticism of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, that it was not doing its stated job of protecting workers. While the article was quick to say that many OSHA investigators care very much about worker safety, the problem is that the agency as a whole has given little attention to protecting employees from more insidious long-term harms.
The article specifically discussed the story of a woman who worked in a factory in North Carolina gluing furniture cushions. The woman was exposed to a dangerous chemical known as n-propyl bromide, which has been found to cause problems such as neurological damage and infertility, even in those workers who were exposed to relatively low levels of the substance. Despite the dangers of the chemical which have been widely reported, OSHA has done very little to prevent other workers from suffering harm.
Though OSHA has frequently been accused of being overzealous in its pursuit of some companies, other groups have criticized the safety agency for ignoring more complicated, long-term problems in favor of handling isolated workplace accident cases. The Times said that it’s clear that OSHA spends the majority of its time and money handling issues of specific dangers while ignoring the slow killers that ultimately prove to be deadlier.
The issue is no small problem. Estimates are that each year 40,000 people die and another 200,000 workers are injured due to toxic substances in workplaces. Though there’s tremendous danger associated with toxic substances, OSHA has only issued exposure limits for 16 out of the thousands of known toxic substances. The rest remain up to individual employers to decide what is safe. Confusingly, OSHA also maintains several dozen pages of specific regulations concerning workplace ladders and stairs. The director of the agency described the system of chasing smaller complaints as “broken” and says more needs to be done to protect the long-term health of workers.
One of the reasons for the short-term view is that OSHA is frankly too small to devote time to slower problems. There are only 2,400 inspectors in the agency, which is tasked with overseeing safety at some 8,000,000 job sites. The government spends less than half the amount of money on OSHA as it does protecting fish and wildlife.
Another issue that makes the agency seem powerless is the lack of truly terrifying fines against wrongdoers. OSHA can only hand down $7,000 fines in the most egregious cases where there is a substantial probability of death or serious injury occurring. In cases of repeat offenders who have willfully ignored regulations, $70,000 is the max penalty. These relatively weak fines pale in comparison to the amount of money the Department of Agriculture and the FCC can fine the groups that they oversee.
The fact is much work remains to be done if OSHA is going to truly protect the long-term health and safety of workers. The agency needs more resources, in terms of money and staff, to be able to pursue longer and more complicated cases against some industries. Hopefully lawmakers realize this and begin to make worker safety a true governmental priority.
If you have questions about the workers’ compensation process or if you have been injured on the job and think you may need representation, please contact the Jackson workers’ compensation attorneys at Kilpatrick & Philley, PLLC at (601) 856-7800.
Source: “As OSHA Emphasizes Safety, Long-Term Health Risks Fester,” by Ian Urbina, published at NYTimes.com.
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