This is part three of a three-part series to appear in ISHN.

With current funding and staffing, OSHA's assignment to "assure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women" is humanly impossible. One of the most critical facts to know about OSHA is that the agency is equipped with less than 2,200 inspectors to cover more than seven million workplaces. Add this fact to the public's lack of awareness and support, throw in chronic Congressional and industry belittling, and the nation has a recipe for an ineffective OSHA.

In 1990, Congress increased the maximum penalties for OSHA violations to $7,000 for serious violations and to $70,000 for willful and repeat violations. Those intimidating figures, however, dissolve during settlement agreements and negotiations. Despite the $70,000 willful penalty allowed, for example, willfuls actually average less than half that - only about $23,000. Unclassifieds, presumably willfuls in sheep's clothing, come in at a shocking $8,900. Even worse, employers pay $650 for the average serious violation and only $2,900 for repeat violations.

With penalties this low and the risk of inspection so remote, it makes economic sense for many employers to risk a potential OSHA penalty rather than invest in prevention.

$455 for a life

Taking this risk can result in horrific consequences. Garrett saw his co-worker get pulled into a mullerator, an eight- to nine-foot-long cylinder with a six-inch steel shaft running through the center of it. The shaft had numerous arms with blades attached to mix the sand that ran through it. Every night the equipment was cleaned and serviced because the blades had to be set at 3/16th of an inch from the outside walls to best mix the sand.

There were two mullerators, Garrett explained. One person was cleaning one and another person was servicing the other. The person cleaning the machine often "jogged it" to move the blades slightly to get to the different parts. He accidentally "jogged" the wrong machine, pulling the other worker into it.

"He had to have been killed instantly," Garrett said. "It was the worst thing I ever saw in my life."

The mullerators were cleaned and serviced every night and the employer knew it. Reaching into a blade-filled chamber is unarguably a recognized hazard, the very type the Occupational Safety and Health Act was designed to address. Still, OSHA fined the company $455.

The need to know

With its small staff and budget, the strength of OSHA is not in its day-to-day enforcement threat. Like the Internal Revenue Service needs tax audits, OSHA needs a bigger threat because it can't be everywhere at once. The real influencing force behind OSHA is this: an employer's fear of being made into a national headline, receiving maximum penalties, and facing criminal prosecution.

If the public were more informed of the vital need for OSHA, more support might be provided to the struggling agency. If industry knew its OSHA files might be discussed in a book or news article, perhaps employers would run safer and healthier workplaces to begin with. Investors, consumers and employees could choose to go elsewhere when they learn of a company's poor safety and health practices. Likewise, employers known for their commitment to keep their employees safe and healthy could attract greater business.

But it is not currently possible to learn which companies in the nation are the ones with the worst injury and illness rates. Although both the Bureau of Labor Statistics and OSHA are part of the same department - the Department of Labor - the BLS staunchly refuses to release any employer-specific information, including employer names, to OSHA or the public. BLS believes such disclosure might inhibit employers from accurately providing data on injuries and illnesses.

Only when the nation recognizes the true depth and impact of the workplace epidemic can we as a country and as individuals begin to take responsibility to control risk and reduce occupational deaths, injuries and illnesses. As an informed public, we can encourage greater corporate responsibility. As a motivated public, we can command a place at the table and bring the occupational health discussion out of the exclusive realm of the political and scientific community. As employers and employees, voters and leaders, we can choose to act responsibly, intelligently, and morally to protect human life and well-being.

The green example

Following the comprehensive, factual, and digested information on the environment made available in Rachel Carson's 1962 book, "Silent Spring," America became aware of, and is to this day, interested in environmental issues. Like the environment, workplace health and safety packs an impact that affects personal and community health, as well as economics and politics. Like the environment, occupational health and safety impacts all Americans. But it is often out of the control of those most at risk. Like the environment, millions of dollars are at stake as well as a priceless commodity - human health and safety. Public interest groups maintain the momentum to keep the environment a public issue of national concern. It is time for the nation to likewise recognize and push occupational health and safety to the forefront. There simply is no other force to stop the epidemic raging through our nation's workplaces. Left alone, it will continue as it has for decades. Or it will worsen. "A Job to Die For: Why So Many Americans are Killed, Injured or Made Ill at Work and What to Do About It," by Lisa Cullen, is available at www.ajobtodiefor.com.