We’re coming up on an anniversary: in 1970 Congress passed and President Richard Nixon signed into the law the Occupational Safety and Health Act, creating the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, OSHA. A colleague asked if I had any thoughts on OSHA hitting the half-century mark. He asked what’s worked and what hasn’t with the agency, and what a look into the crystal ball might say about OSHA’s future.
Well, here goes:
OSHA has survived. I realize this is not to everyone’s liking. But for 50 years, despite very little Congressional support, public opinion support, media coverage, and against strong opposition from powerful business lobbying groups, the agency has weathered many storms. Some of the blows have been self-inflicted; others come from a knee-jerk opposition to almost anything OSHA decides to do.
OSHA has been painted by critics, who are louder and more visible than supporters, as the poster child bad boy for regulatory government intrusion. Despite its miniscule size by federal government standards, OSHA has more critics than the IRS, the EPA, the FDA, the FAA -- name a federal regulatory agency with a worse “brand name” than OSHA. For 50 years the agency has been the butt of jokes: “OSHA, isn’t that a town in Wisconsin?”
OSHA’s mission is to protect workers, save lives, and make workplaces safe. That mission is akin to motherhood and apple pie. How can you protest saving lives? Here’s the problem: OSHA’s mission butts up against several U.S. societal norms or beliefs. One is the time-honored adage that no matter what, accidents happen. Another is the conviction that in a free enterprise system businesses should not be dictated to by the government as to how to run their operations. This ranges from where to place fire extinguishers to mandatory bathroom breaks. And the government commanding businesses on how to spend money – such as on compliance – is hard medicine to swallow for many businesses, especially small ones struggling to survive. Plus, many safety investments are viewed by many business owners as cost burdens that do not contribute to profits.
In its 50-year existence, OSHA has had but ten truly productive years as a standards-setting body, from 1975 to 1985. Its most aggressive administrator, Dr. Eula Bingham, so incensed the business community that a STOP OSHA campaign was underway by 1980. Legislation was drafted to “reform” (neutralize or neuter) the agency. In its standards-setting heyday, OSHA published necessary standards for lethal exposures to benzene, cotton dust, lead, methylene chloride and other workplace hazardous materials.
But fierce opposition to OSHA standards and intervention into business’s capitalist prerogative to decide how to conduct its operations and make a profit thwarted numerous standards. On the drawing board but never brought to life: a carcinogen policy, general industrial hygiene exposure monitoring programs, general medical surveillance programs (both recommended by NIOSH), motor vehicle safety, ergonomics, workplace indoor air quality, a safety and health program management standard, and updating hundreds of permissible exposure limits for hazardous substances that are decades out of date.
Federal agencies are 99.9 percent impossible to kill. So much for draining the swamp. OSHA has survived several attempts to either eliminate, gut or “reform” it into a mere consulting and educator role (imagine the IRS serving only as a consultant and “educator”). But the little agency suffers from benign – and sometimes overt – neglect. Its lack of budget and manpower, and often leadership in the front office, are partly responsible for the end of major OSHA standards-setting. Business lobbying, much stronger than in OSHA’s early years, is another reason. OSHA’s lack of public support and any kind of favorable media coverage pale pathetically compared to public and media support for environmental protections.
Where’s the will?
The lack of political will to seriously and fully confront and try to control climate change shows how extremely difficult it will be for OSHA to set standards for almost any hazard to health and safety. The same apathy is in play.
In the most favorable political climate for OSHA in the future, with strong internal leadership, the agency will only be able to set standards for narrow “niche” hazards that the majority of U.S. businesses will not have to comply with or worry about. We’re talking about communication tower safety, crane operator qualifications, respirator fit testing and tree care – all currently on OSHA’s notoriously unreliable regulatory agenda. A common, widespread and potentially lethal hazard such as heat stress affects the operations of too many businesses, and an OSHA standard like this that cuts across industries will run into business opposition too powerful to circumvent. Recall the fate of the ergonomics standard.
Likewise, a standard on preventing workplace violence in healthcare and social support services is much needed and in the earliest stages of development. But it is an example of a standard with a high-impact on business operations that will be very difficult to publish as a final rule – without the almost obligatory rush to the courthouse to overturn it.
OSHA will carry on as a very small government regulatory agency with many more critics and opponents than visible, and by any definition, powerful supporters. Coupled with its lack of resources, OSHA will chart a narrow, confined course of minor standards, constrained enforcement given its lack of inspectors, and continue to modestly grow its non-controversial educational role.
— Dave Johnson, ISHN Editor,