EDITORIAL COMMENTS: Dear Madam Secretary...
February 5, 2009
Dear Madam Secretary,
Congratulations on your appointment. As you said at your Senate confirmation hearings, it is an honor to serve the country in a leadership position, especially when you have the opportunity to make a difference in, as you said, “an especially difficult moment” for working Americans.
I know you have been, and will be, flooded with proposals for appointees, regulations, executive orders, priorities and calls for immediate interventions on numerous labor-related fronts. The chorus for change regarding one of your agencies, OSHA, is loud and clear from many interest groups who have been on the outside looking in at OSHA operations in the past eight years, or who are just plain tired of the same old same old out of the agency.
I’ve been observing OSHA activity from the outside since Ronald Reagan vowed (in vain) to trim back the regulatory thicket in the early ‘80s. Since then, OSHA has proven resilient but erratic in terms of performance. It has at times been bound and gagged by political partisanship. Your agency problem child provokes strong emotions and controversy, with unfortunately little consensus support for steps taken in any direction.
You’ve heard it from others; this new political and economic landscape unleashes forces combining to present a rare chance to rethink how OSHA can best contribute to safe and healthy workplaces. To do so, here are ten suggestions:
Don’t rush it. There are folks passionate about protecting workers from job hazards who have been waiting since the 1970s for the return of an activist and aggressive OSHA. Calm them down.
Steer away from “safety first.” Please refrain from the easy, empty rhetoric about job safety. Safety and health professionals and employees have been served up platitudes about safety forever, and in too many cases know that words will not be backed by action.
Avoid revisiting an ergonomics standard. OSHA’s been there, tried that. Resist your boss’s pledge during his campaign to have another go at an ergo standard. It will be a battle royale, and OSHA’s scant resources are better spent elsewhere.
Push for injury/illness prevention program requirements. Here’s one place to invest OSHA resources. Some say this should have been the first standard the agency ever issued. The variability in the quality of workplace safety and health programs, ranging from world-class to absolutely nothing, leaves far too many workers at risk.
Don’t gloat over declines in injury and illness rates. This has been an annual exercise for the Department of Labor for years, regardless of administration. The declines have paralleled the increasing automation and overseas outsourcing of manufacturing, and the rise of less hazardous service industries. Also, the sampling base is small, and the under-reporting of injuries and illnesses, especially in small firms or where an immigrant workforce is involved, is anything but rare.
Remember back in 1995 when you held hearings and pushed for heavier enforcement of laws against sweatshops after California authorities raided that El Monte building where 72 Thai workers sweated 18 hours a day stitching garments? What kind of injury records did you find there?
Recognize the safety and health profession’s silent majority. There are thousands of dedicated safety and health professionals who have spent decades (their average age today is in the early 50s range) protecting their workforces. Many have pushed their programs beyond what OSHA rules call for. That’s a reason why, when we polled readers about their 2009 aspirations for OSHA, only 21 percent wanted more OSHA standards-setting and 26 percent wanted increased enforcement. Only 18 percent said OSHA compliance was still a difficult objective to achieve.
This speaks to the need to target OSHA standards enforcement where you’ll get your biggest bang for the buck.
Rein in the pendulum swing. Your predecessor, Elaine Chao, got it right when she told The Washington Post “the Department of Labor is probably the most partisan of all the departments. People have very different world views about… what’s best for the workplace.” That’s about the only thing the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO will agree on when it comes to OSHA.
It will require significant will and restraint to resist partisanship and give OSHA much needed credibility by being open to all input. And it’s not only external forces that make this difficult. Recognize OSHA’s institutional and historic “dogged” reluctance to operate with a spirit of cooperative consideration for all stakeholder views, as the workplace safety and health consultancy of ORC Worldwide put it in a November, 2008 White Paper, “Breaking the Cycle: New Approaches to Establishing National Workplace Safety and Health Policy.”
Appoint an OSHA chief much like yourself. At your Senate confirmation hearing you concluded by telling the committee, “You have my commitment that, if confirmed, I will listen and respond to your concerns. My door will always be open to you and your colleagues in the House and Senate. We may not always agree. But I promise that I will not let those disagreements get in the way of the pursuit of our common goal.”
Hopefully, you intend to extend that openess beyond politicians. And your assistant secretary of labor for OSHA also needs to keep an open door, listen and respond to concerns, and not allow disagreements to once again paralyze efforts to update permissible exposure limits, for example, and other outdated standards, improve job safety in small firms, and bring OSHA into the 21st century of global safety and health policy-making.
It will take courageous leadership to break the “culture of confrontation” as ORC describes the decades-old gridlock over U.S. workplaces safety and health policy. Courage like you showed in one of your first acts in the California Assembly, when you sided with labor against the tobacco industry and your own Democratic leadership by voting in 1993 for legislation to ban smoking in all workplaces.
Cover the back of your OSHA boss. The boldness of your OSHA assistant secretary will be commensurate with the public and private political cover you provide, and the amount of discretion you allow.
Prepare OSHA for infrastructure rebuilding. If the president pours billions into repairing or replacing bridges, highways, public works and buildings, OSHA must get serious about long-delayed standards for the safety of construction confined spaces, crystalline silica exposures, excessive noise on construction sites, the safety of cranes and derricks, and take the lead in contractor safety issues and protecting immigrant and minority work populations.
Madame Secretary, OSHA has been the proverbial political football since its inception, most often kicked about without energy or enthusiasm by Democratic and Republican players alike. Workers deserve better. Here’s hoping you and your OSHA appointees take the air out of the ball.