Strengthening OSHA to Protect America's Workers (Rep. George Miller)

Today, on the 20th anniversary of Workers Memorial Day, the Committee on Education and Labor met to explore whether current penalties are adequate to protect the health and safety of American workers. This day honors of the thousands of workers who fall sick, are injured or killed each year due to hazardous conditions on the job.  In 2007, 5,657 workplace deaths were reported and more than 4 million workers reported job-related injuries, diseases or sicknesses. This averages out to about 15 deaths and 11,000 injuries or illnesses a day.

The landmark Occupational Safety and Health Act became law in 1970, opening the door to safer and healthier workplaces for millions of workers. However, evidence suggests that we have seen an erosion of the workplace protections guaranteed by the OSH Act, particularly during the last several years.

Beginning in the last Congress, the full committee and Rep. Lynn Woolsey’s Subcommittee on Workforce Protections conducted a systematic examination of OSHA and the agency’s ability to adequately protect workers. We found that well-documented hazards, like exposure to a chemical that causes popcorn lung disease and combustible dust dangers, as well as basic regulatory work like updating construction standards, were not being addressed. In fact, OSHA’s regulatory function shut down. The Bush administration promulgated only one significant health and safety standard during its tenure. And that was under court order. Additionally, we found that enforcement tools were left on the shelf at times.

OSHA has the ability to reverse some of these problems with new leadership. That’s why I am confident that Labor Sec. Hilda Solis will be able to get the agency back on a firm footing. But good leadership alone may not be enough to sufficiently protect workers’ health and safety. Long overdue reforms to the OSH Act are needed.

Last week, Rep. Woolsey introduced the Protecting America’s Workers Act. The bill will update OSHA penalties, strengthen whistleblower protections, and ensure that bad employers are held accountable. This legislation is vital to improving worker health and safety.

Penalties under the OSH Act were last updated in 1990 and were not indexed for inflation. While the law currently provides comparatively low penalties for health and safety violations, those penalties often get lower. Unscrupulous employers often avoid being held accountable for their actions by negotiating the fines down or away altogether.

Penalties are the key enforcement mechanism under the OSH Act. They must be real. They must be meaningful. They must function to deter violations. They must get people’s attention. And, these enforcement mechanisms must not be a mere cost of doing business.