Occupational health and safety used to be above political argy-bargy. It was accepted that the safety of workers was a core importance to the management of any business. Often it operated as a subset of industrial relations and popped its head up occasionally, usually when new of revised legislation was due. Rarely has workplace safety been a catalyst for political controversy.
In the United States, the last political fight was over the ergonomics rule under a Republican Bush presidency in 2001. According to one media report:
“The president has directed Labor Secretary Elaine Chao to find a less expensive way to protect worker health.”
The Democrat administration of President Obama has, according to an Associated Press (AP) report doing the rounds of the US newspapers, provided indications of not only “a new sheriff” in Hilda Solis but one who is willing to enforce the law:
“Less than a year into her tenure, that figurative badge of authority is unmistakable. Her aggressive moves to boost enforcement and crack down on businesses that violate workplace safety rules have sent employers scrambling to make sure they are following the rules.”
The November 2009 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) showing high levels of under-reporting of injuries has provided strong justification for a change in enforcement approach on top of the ideological reasons.
Solis reportedly said in November 2009:
“Many of the problems identified in the report are quite alarming, and OSHA will be taking strong enforcement action where we find underreporting.”
The AP report summarises some of Solis’ recent OSHA actions:
“Garnering less attention, she just finished hiring 250 new investigators to protect workers from being cheated out of wage and overtime pay. She also started a new program that scrutinizes business records to make sure worker injury and illness reports are accurate. And she is proposing new standards to protect workers from industrial dust explosions – an effort the Bush administration had long resisted.”
The new inspectors is a good start but for the size of American industry, it remains proportionately small. Clearly the GAO report has been influential and finally the government is responding to workplace deaths from dust explosions.
There is little doubt that workplace safety improvement, enforcement and prevention stagnated under recent Republican administrations. In many countries the workplace fatality rate has fallen recently but this has mainly been due to the reduction of manufacturing and work due to economic pressures. This statistical blip, waiting to be authoritatively verified, may skew OHS regulatory performance in a similar way to the statistics showing a “solid” financial recovery that has come off a low or catastrophic performance base.
One can only hope that the action taken in October 2009 by Solis over continuing OHS breaches at the BP Texas City oil refinery was an opening shot in an increasing, and increasingly fair, OHS enforcement regime. At the same time OHS professionals must get prepared for the inclusion of their profession in the category of political footballs that will be kicked around in every election campaign.