By Phil La Duke
Two debates rage these days, one regarding the most appropriate response to the so-called fiscal cliff, and the other concerning the effectiveness and the continued need for worker safety regulations. The convergence of these two debates makes the future of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) both as a law and as an enforcement agency.
For some, the real question is not “will OSHA survive?” but “should it?” The lessons of the rapacious deregulation—the housing crisis, the orgy of banking abuses, and the rape of the poor resultant from usurious payday loan businesses—go largely unlearned or ignored, by those who argue that OSHA is an anachronism. In effective and bloated, they assert, it’s time for OSHA to go.
For others, OSHA is a sacred cow; to even suggest that OSHA needs to be reorganized is blasphemy. In their minds to dismantle OSHA is tantamount to abandoning safety to the unscrupulous businesses that use workers like chattel. Without OSHA, they argue, a hundred years of safety will be unceremoniously unraveled.
Both the debate over the fiscal cliff and over the need for, and relevance of, safety regulations, belie deeper conflicts; both are expressions over values. In the case of the fiscal cliff debates people are arguing if things we as a society are worth the money we currently spending on them, in other words, are we getting our money’s worth for the things we collectively purchase. For many, this debate is about a very basic principle: the role of government. Some see the fiscal crisis as a golden opportunity to significantly reduce big government, while others see it as an essential battle to defend decades of social advancement. Add to this debate, international controversy surrounding whether or not safety requirements have become excessive and overly burdensome. At the heart of this debate is whether or not we believe that business, left to its own designs, will do the right thing in terms of protecting workers.
I won’t take a side in these debates, but I will say that OSHA is likely to be the big loser. To some degree OSHA has been the victim of its own success. We just don’t see disasters on the scale of the Triangle Shirt Waist fire anymore. The success of safety regulation and enforcement has created a global public opinion (far from the consensus, but with enough sympathizers to make it significant) that the workplace is safe enough, and even if isn’t there is scarce little that government can do about it.
OSHA currently lacks the resources to do much more than to respond to complaints. It offers a myriad of valuable free services that most businesses refuse to use. I have actively promoted OSHA’s free products and services among my customers to whom I consult only to be told that I was crazy if I thought they were going to invite OSHA into their facilities. Each one ended up paying me to do what they could have received free from OSHA. If OSHA is to survive, it needs to proactively cut funding for VPP, training, and its other highly valuable and disappointingly under-used programs and reallocate a portion of the monies saved to investigation and enforcement. Doing so will not only create public good-will as it sees OSHA as actively participating in cost reduction; it will also raise public awareness of the programs. Increased funding for enforcement will likely bring to light the true state of safety in business today. Perhaps there will be public outcry at widespread abuses by business or perhaps it will confirm what many believe: that business in America today value safety and do a good job protecting workers. In either event, the public good is served.
For the many of the great unwashed (and uninformed) have been swayed by campaign ads that safety costs jobs. Politicians play free and lose with insinuations that workers had better toughen up and decide whether they want to safe at work or to be unemployed. And if safety costs jobs, it follows that OSHA is a government agency dedicated to eliminating jobs, forcing high-paying low-skill jobs off shores where foreigners do the jobs for pennies on the dollar. If you believe that OSHA does this then you believe that the government is essentially spending your tax dollars to screw you out of your livelihood. Forget whether or not OSHA can survive in this environment and worry can America survive in this environment.
Safety professionals haven’t helped OSHA’s cause. The propagation of the belief that 90% (or more) of safety is behavioral has created (in addition to a cottage industry of snake-oil salesmen) a belief that OSHA is useless—after all, why have a government agency devoted to ensuring safety by dealing with only 10% or less with the things that actually cause injuries when you can just kick the stupid, lazy, and careless workers in the ass? If one believes that the secret to a safer workplace lies in behavior modification, recognition and reward, and other carrot-and-stick policies that what relevancy does OSHA have? Would we expect OSHA inspectors to audit for motivation? Would it establish standards for recognition and reward?
For many people, OSHA is a vestige of days gone by. They no longer feel the pain of losing loved ones in the workplace and have convinced themselves that it can never happen again. If OSHA hopes to survive (in any meaningful and useful sense, let’s face it there isn’t a politician alive with the gut and gumption to truly end OSHA, but there is a fair chance that it will become so emasculated and underfunded that it will cease to be more than hollow symbol. If OSHA is going to survive and thrive it will have to reinvent itself even if it is only in the public.
 For the record I reject the premise that 90% or more of injuries are caused by unsafe behaviors and I understand that OSHA addresses far more than physical hazards and addresses (or seeks to address) behavioral choices through training and awareness.