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Audit shows OSHA failed to prevent worker deaths

Published Apr 26, 2009 8:06 PM

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration was created in 1970 as a division of the U.S. Department of Labor tasked with preventing work-related injuries, illnesses and deaths by setting and enforcing standards for workplace safety and health.

Where fatalities have occurred on the job, OSHA is supposed to oversee the enforcement of its rules. However, an audit of OSHA’s program for employers with fatalities, released March 31, found that those who qualified for the Enhanced Enforcement Program were almost always overlooked—97 percent of the time. (“Employers with reported fatalities were not always properly identified and inspected under OSHA’s Enhanced Enforcement Program,” Elliot P. Lewis, U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Inspector General—Office of Audit)

Bureau of Labor Statistics figures show an average of more than 5,680 workplace deaths each year in the period from 2003 to 2007. This does not include deaths from work-related illnesses, like asbestosis and some cancers, which kill about 49,000 people per year, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Proper application of the EEP procedures, including additional inspections and stricter settlement terms, might have corrected the detected hazards at 45 companies where 58 workplace deaths subsequently took place, according to the report.

The audit spanned the years 2003 to 2008 and covered the Atlanta, Chicago and Dallas regions of OSHA. Of the cases in the sample, 29 were designated as EEP without any of the required stepped-up enforcement actions. Twenty workers subsequently died at these 29 companies after OSHA had identified hazards.

OSHA also failed to do comprehensive or “wall-to-wall” inspections at some of these worksites, even though the companies’ names appeared on lists calling for such inspections. Had these places received comprehensive inspections after the first death, the second or third worker fatality might have been averted, noted the report.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that the Enhanced Enforcement Program was adopted by federal OSHA, which has enforcement authority in just 24 states. The other 26 have state plans for the enforcement of occupational safety and health laws. Only six of these states have adopted programs similar to EEP.

Three worker deaths at the steel company Arcelor Mittal in the first four months of 2008 showed how this undermines the potential of EEP. The second occurred where there was a state plan with no program similar to EEP, so no enhanced enforcement action was taken—which might have prevented the third death.

OSHA’s response to the report was to accept most of its recommendations but to dodge any responsibility for the deaths that occurred.

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney called the report’s release “an indictment of the Bush administration’s unwillingness to protect and safeguard” U.S. workers.

Eric Frumin, health and safety coordinator for Change to Win labor federation, said, “As the findings show, dozens of workers died at employers who were previously inspected by OSHA in dangerous and severe situations. It is outrageous that these employers neglected to prevent their workers’ deaths or severe injuries at other locations.”

On April 8 worker health and safety activist Jordan Barab was appointed acting head of OSHA. He will become OSHA’s deputy assistant secretary once a permanent head is named. Included in Barab’s strong history are his direction of the health and safety program at the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees from 1982 to 1998 and his award-winning blog about worker safety and health called Confined Space from 2003 to 2007.

It is hoped Barab can play a role not only in reinvigorating the EEP but in pushing forward many badly needed new rules, including standards for combustible dust and ergonomics, and can advocate for getting many more trained inspectors to enforce the standards.

The murders cannot go on. Safer workplaces now!