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The American mission of safe and healthful workplaces should be highly visible, heralded and backed by an adequately funded and enforced program. After all, far more Americans have lost their lives due to trauma and toxics in places of employment — especially the factories, farms, construction sites and mines — than the number of Americans lost in all the nation’s wars.

Nonetheless, for generations it has been a reluctant push and a strained pull to eke out the most minimal governmental safety initiatives in these arenas.

The failure to act is all the more tragic because it is clear that occupational health and safety regulation works. For all their limitations and crises of underfunding, the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) and the agency it created, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), have dramatically reduced the death toll from workplace hazards in the United States. Since the passage of the Occupational and Safety Act in 1970, and despite the lax enforcement of OSHA rules, overall industry fatality rates from trauma have fallen by 75 percent. Construction fatality rates have been cut by almost 80 percent, mining rates by 75 percent, agricultural rates by nearly two thirds, and manufacturing rates by 60 percent.

With the occasional leadership of people like Eula Bingham, OSHA, through its actions and its looming potential, has steered the country toward successes in reducing death on the job.

But the injury and death toll remains shamefully high. In 1998, over 6.2 million workplace injuries and illnesses were recorded in the private sector. More than 6,000 workers die annually from workplace trauma; the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health conservatively estimates that another 50,000 workers die every year from
workplace-related disease.

Over the last 20 years, OSHA has suffered by equal turns from administrative and congressional neglect and hostility.

According to a 1999 Public Citizen report, the Clinton administration’s record on protecting worker safety is the worst since passage of the OSH Act in terms of number of annual inspections and percentage of proposed serious, willful or repeat (SWR) violations that are dismissed or downgraded. The administration’s record is worse than the Bush administration’s in terms of SWR violations and total penalties ultimately assessed. And it is no better than the Bush administration in terms of the ratio of unprogrammed to programmed inspections, the number of SWR violations per inspection, the percentage of proposed penalties ultimately assessed, and the average penalty per inspection.

The real-world effects of this neglect are tragic.

With the administration deprioritizing worker safety and health and unwilling to buck an extremely hostile Republican Congress, it has issued only a handful of new occupational safety and health standards. As a result, workers are every day exposed to deadly levels of chrome and other toxic hazards — leading to preventable death and disease.

Guaranteeing people’s human right to a safe workplace must again become a top national priority. The current OSHA Administrator, Charles Jeffress, says the OSHA budget should be increased 20 times, to $7 billion. He’s right. That would put the OSHA budget on par with that of the Environmental Protection Agency.

We need to see a beefed up inspection system, a heightened willingnessto use criminal sanctions against employers who put their workers’ lives at risk, and higher available penalties.

And we must make sure that workers have the legal right to defend themselves from workplace hazards. They need stronger whistleblower protections, so that employees are not fearful of losing their jobs or other retaliation if they report dangerous working conditions, and a Right to Act — an unambiguous statutory right to refuse dangerous work.

It is time for the nation to focus its attention between the gap between safety and health regulatory promise and actual corporate performance, and to resolve to turn around a situation that for too long has been in the backwaters of politics and press.