Bush Administration Policies Making Work Less Safe

bandage.jpgBy Leo W. Gerard | In the heart of Pennsylvania, while the media still relentlessly plagued Senators Obama and Clinton about flag pins and memory lapses just before the primary, a machine at an ArcelorMital plant in Steelton crushed Roger H. Prichard to death. He was 58.

It was April 18, three days before the Pennsylvania primary. It occurred just five days after piping crushed Jaren T. Hoover to death at the Dura-Bond Pipe factory, also in Steelton. He was 19.

Life went on. Jaren’s father, a Pennsylvania common pleas judge, found dozens of his son’s friends at the funeral, mourning, and doing what kids do now, which is post memorials on MySpace. Roger Prichard’s wife told a local reporter that her husband was a good father and husband and loving person, before she was too overcome to continue speaking. His grandchildren will never get to know him.

As the presidential candidates are repeatedly forced to focus on the frivolous — whether Hillary faked crying or laughed too loud or whether Obama once served on a board of directors with an unsavory character — real issues like federal enforcement of workplace safety are completely ignored.

Monday, April 28, however, is one day set aside to concentrate on saving workers’ lives. It is Workers Memorial Day. It is an occasion on which we mourn the dead and strive for better conditions for the living.

Under the Bush Administration, this has been nothing but a struggle.

Here’s a telling statistic: the number of workplace deaths increased from 2005 to 2006, the last full year for which figures are available. By 106. The total for 2005 was 5,734 dead in the U.S. The next year, it rose to 5,840.

During the six years of the Bush administration for which there are statistics, the number of deaths rose four times. The deaths climbed so high from 2003 to 2004 that the rate actually increased, the first time that has occurred — during either a Republican or a Democratic administration — since 1970 when Congress passed the act creating the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to improve workplace safety.

Each day in 2006, 16 workers died on the job. This was not from heart attacks or strokes. This was from traumatic workplace injuries — because they suffocated when pits they were digging collapsed with sides not properly shored up, or because they plummeted from construction sites lacking safety gear to stop the fall, or because dust that should not have been accumulating in the factory air exploded.

Workplace safety has the same problem as car safety. No one much pays attention to individuals like Jaren T. Hoover and Roger H. Prichard, just like they don’t pay much attention to single car accidents killing a person here and there on the highway. The public does notice, however, when a plane crashes or when a crane topples over in Manhattan, killing six construction workers all at once, or when a disaster in a mine in West Virginia suffocates 12 Sago workers.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of deaths occur one-by-one, and so, in the resulting lack of public outrage and uproar afterward, the Bush Administration has, over the past seven years, managed to de-fund OSHA, the agency responsible for keeping workers safe and dismantle its regulation structure.

Since George W. Bush took office and decided that a policy of government and business cooperating like good ‘ole boys to enforce rules should replace the former inspection structure, OSHA’s budget has been cut by $25 million and its staff by nearly 200 positions.

A report by the AFL-CIO Safety and Health Office, called, “Death on the Job, The Toll of Neglect” calculates that with OSHA’s current number of inspectors, it would take the agency 133 years to examine each workplace under its jurisdiction just once. So don’t expect OSHA to show up to check your employer real soon, no matter how bad things are.

The report puts the situation this way: “When it comes to job safety enforcement and coverage, it is clear that OSHA lacks sufficient resources to protect workers adequately.”

Well, surely then, when something happens, like a workplace crushing death, OSHA responds by smacking down the recalcitrant employer with a big fine to get them in line, right? Wrong.

In 2007, serious violations of the act — an infraction is deemed serious if it poses a substantial probability of death or major physical harm — carried an average fine of $909.

For a fatality, the average penalty was $10,133. And that number is unusually high. In the previous four years, the fines averaged $6,100. The AFL-CIO report authors expect the 2007 number to shrink after companies successfully appeal larger fines levied against them.

Barring good use of inspections and fines, there’s another enforcement tool that could keep workers safe. That would be criminally prosecuting employers whose engage in egregious behavior, like removing or disabling safety devices on dangerous equipment.

In Canada, workers will toll a bell during their Workers Memorial Day commemorations for Steve L’Ecuyer, a 23-year-old crushed to death by a machine after his employer, Transpave, Inc. deliberately disabled a safety device intended to prevent such an accident. There, Transpave was found criminally negligent and fined $110,000.

Here, the Department of Labor referred ten cases to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution in 2007. The number is limited because the kinds of cases are restricted under current U.S. law. They may only be instances in which Labor found that an employer’s willful violation of regulation resulted in a worker’s death or where false statements were made. If there’s a conviction, the penalties are also limited — a maximum of six months in jail.

Even so, the Justice Department has taken action on none of the referred cases.

Not one.

No wonder 106 more people failed to come home from work in 2006 than in 2005.

Work is less safe. Monday is the day to protest that. It is the day to demand safety in the names of Roger H. Prichard and Jaren T. Hoover and all of the others who did not come home.