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The Need for a Reinvigorated Workplace Safety Regime

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Today is the 50th anniversary of OSHA. For years, it has not been a functional agency, the ultimate example of corporate capture and budget cuts. In 2013, it would have taken OSHA inspectors 129 years to visit every American workplace and it has only gotten worse since then. David Michaels, who worked for OSHA under Obama, has a good op-ed about what needs to happen.

OSHA needs to adapt to the changing nature of the American labor market. It can take a cue from countries like Australia and New Zealand, which have embraced a new model called “duty of care,” in which companies must ensure that their activities do not endanger the health and safety of any worker, regardless of type.

As OSHA begins its sixth decade, it can make changes to improve the safety of American workplaces. A large majority of chemicals used in the workplace are unregulated, and in the past 20 years, the agency has established maximum allowable exposure levels for only three chemicals. OSHA needs a more nimble system for issuing requirements that describe how employers must limit exposures to chemicals, violence, excessive heat and other hazards.

While OSHA badly needs more inspectors, it will never have enough to visit all workplaces. To broaden its impact, the agency should augment the consequences for violating safety regulations in order to encourage employers to address hazards before OSHA inspects, and before workers get hurt. Publicizing safety violations can serve as an effective deterrent: One study found that OSHA would have to conduct 210 inspections to achieve the same amount of deterrence as a single news release detailing a severe safety violation.

And while financial penalties might, in theory, prompt employers to follow safety rules, OSHA’s fines are tiny compared with those levied by other government agencies that also protect the public from illegal corporate behavior. Increasing fines to the levels of those issued by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Securities and Exchange Commission, for example, could help encourage employers to prioritize worker protections. So would instituting more severe criminal penalties for particularly egregious violations, such as those that result in serious injuries.

Thanks to OSHA’s efforts, countless workers have been spared injuries, illnesses, disability and premature death. But too many are still being hurt on the job. The Covid-19 pandemic has taught us the value of the often invisible workers who make our economy function. OSHA should modernize to ensure that all workers are able to do their jobs and at the end of their shifts go home safe and healthy.

Unfortunately though, this is an area where Biden has dropped the ball so far.

The Biden administration is more than six weeks late on a self-imposed deadline to set a workplace safety standard for the coronavirus, angering laboradvocates who had hoped the White House would move quickly to fill a void left by the Trump administration.

President Biden issued an executive order on his second day in office that directed the Labor Department to issue an emergency temporary standard, or ETS, by March 15, if it found one to be necessary.

Labor Secretary Marty Walsh told The Washington Post on March 24 that he had been briefed on the issue, but the proposal appears to havebeen delayed in recent weeks, drawing rare rebukes from Democrats and worker advocates, who have been pushing for Labor to do more since the onset of the pandemic.

This needs to get done. One of the problems on workplace safety and OSHA in recent decades is that Democratic presidents haven’t really prioritized building it back up to the tough standards necessary. So Republicans eviscerate it and Democrats have bigger fish to fry. Biden needs to change this.

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