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Pete Mackey
Pete Mackey
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OSHA Ignores Long Term Safety Threats

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You know it as OSHA. It's the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a government agency created by President Nixon to oversee health issues in the workplace. A recent New York Times article highlights a big problem that OSHA does not adequately address – long term safety threats:

OSHA devotes most of its budget and attention to responding to here-and-now dangers rather than preventing the silent, slow killers that, in the end, take far more lives. Over the past four decades, the agency has written new standards with exposure limits for 16 of the most deadly workplace hazards, including lead, asbestos and arsenic. But for the tens of thousands of other dangerous substances American workers handle each day, employers are largely left to decide what exposure level is safe.

And OSHA knows it:

“I’m the first to admit this is broken,” said David Michaels, the OSHA director, referring to the agency’s record on dealing with workplace health threats. “Meanwhile, tens of thousands of people end up on the gurney.”

Employers will defend their conduct with standard responses – "we don't know that the product we use at our plant actually causes the reported health problem," "we have done all we can do to make it safe," "we have to be able to keep up with our foreign competition," or "the alternatives are even more dangerous." Sadly for the workers, it doesn't provide a solution. If a statistically significant number of workers at a plant start suffering a common health problem, logic holds that it may well be related to a common harm and should be investigated.

None of the employers' responses justify going forward with business as usual. But there is more than one edge to the dilemma. Manufacturing plants are often located in rural areas where the overwhelming majority of the working population lacks skilled training or post high school education. These jobs provide the best wages they can find and they don't want the plant to close even though they see their co-workers dropping like flies. Sometimes the cause of the problem is hard to pinpoint.

The solution isn't easy. We need a well funded agency with the man power and mandate to act – the power to levy fines that approximate the wrongdoing. We need a public debate on the balancing act between jobs and safety. Many people reacted viscerally to the "death panels" they were told that the Affordable Care Act would bring about. Shouldn't they know that the sofa they are sitting on may have put a worker on disability or, worse, in an early grave?