Following last week’s introduction of H.R. 2067, The Protecting America’s Workers Act, the House Education and Labor Committee held a hearing April 28 on whether OSHA laws ensure that employers who fail to protect their workers are adequately penalized and deterred from committing future violations.

U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-CA), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, opened the hearing by saying, “Over the last few decades, evidence suggests that we have seen an erosion of the workplace protections guaranteed by the OSH Act. The erosion of OSHA’s effectiveness was particularly acute during the last several years.

“Since assuming the majority, we have held at least 15 hearings into workplace health and safety issues; most often issues regarding the failure of the last administration to properly protect American 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.

“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.

“Even maliciously harassing a wild burro under the Federal Wild Horses and Burros Act can bring twice as much prison time as killing a worker after willfully violating the law. 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. This is exactly what happened on the Las Vegas strip during a particularly dangerous year and a half where 12 workers died on construction sites.

“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.”