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Limited Resources Continue to Marginalize the Impact of OSHA

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Advocates who argue for the watering down of worker safety laws throughout the country often point to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) as a regulatory agency capable of enforcing safety rules, preventing or limiting the number of accidents on worksites and holding the bad actors accountable for failing to comply with required safety standards.

The theory is that the laws make for a more onerous economic impact on builders, landowners and developers. There will be little impact, they claim, if they reduce the strength of worker safety laws because OSHA is capable of ensuring worksite safety. Reducing the economic impact, in turn, will entice the industry to build more and create more jobs. They also argue that it will also provide more business owners the ability to obtain affordable insurance. Support for these points is weak, at best.

Worker safety coalitions throughout the country have persuasively argued that laws that hold the entities responsible for safety at a job site accountable for failures to comply with safety laws and regulations have a deterrent effect. In other words, they increased the likelihood that safety is of paramount concern to employers. The laws also provide an avenue of recovery for a worker who is seriously injured or the family of someone killed, giving them the ability to pay their medical bills and receive just compensation. Lastly, they suggest that the lone motivation for weakening worker safety laws is financial gain for wealthy developers, landowners and insurance companies. Often, the discussion veers in the direction of OSHA. We briefly examine this in the paragraphs below.

An article about the limitations of OSHA is about Ohio, but it could be any area in the country. The piece cites a dilemma that OSHA confronts on a regular basis. The agency is focusing greater attention and resources on accident investigation rather than devoting their efforts to accident prevention. The number of accidents that they are required to investigate has increased while staffing and resources have decreased.

OSHA personnel are quoted in the article, offering comments like this: "It's putting a strain on our resources and the ability to do a thorough investigation when an accident occurs. We are keeping up with it but it's tough." By spending more time responding to accidents, OSHA is spending less time on inspections of companies with dangerous track records, preventative teaching and being proactive when there are worker- initiated complaints. Disgruntled OSHA employees are upset that their ability to conduct preventive investigations is severely hindered. In other words, the realities have compelled OSHA to be reactive rather than proactive. The mission of this agency has been altered considerably because of this lack of resources.

OSHA reports an uptick in worker deaths. The reasons that they offer for this increase in workplace fatalities includes an utter lack of attention being paid to safe work practices and training as well as less experienced, younger workers who are not as well versed in safety practices. What is also undeniable is that there are many more immigrant workers who are being exposed to an increased amount of unsafe work practices, resulting in a disproportionate number of severe injuries to immigrant workers. These workers are disadvantaged when it comes to standing up to a boss on a job site when they are forced to work in an unsafe environment. If OSHA is only available to show up after an accident has occurred, how effective can they be in preventing these folks from being exposed to unsafe work practices? The answer remains elusive.

The cost of construction continues to rise. This leads to a critical analysis of the bottom line. Owners, developers and contractors are in this business to make money and if their costs are increased they are going to look to make cuts somewhere. The article rightly suggests that safety is one of the first, if not the first, casualty when expenses are reduced. Where are they going to start cutting corners? A union member answers the question, "Safety's one of the first things you can cut out."

It is clear based on the empirical data and common sense that OSHA is incapable of tackling the worker safety epidemic that his sweeping the country by itself. It just isn't equipped with the manpower and resources to combat the issue. Rather, a collaborative effort with OSHA and strong worker safety laws being on the front line affords our country the best chance to reduce the number of serious workplace injuries and fatalities. It really benefits everyone if we can accomplish this.

Block O'Toole & Murphy is a New York City law firm committed to fighting on behalf of construction workers. They have recovered more than $850 million in verdicts and settlements for their injured clients, including some staggering results both inside and outside of the courtroom for injured workers. You can learn more about this firm by reviewing their website at www.BlockOToole.com.