New Report Finds OSHA Ineffective at Protecting Workers

Recently, Michael Silverstein, M.D., authored a report claiming that the standards outlined in the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) adopted in 1970 are ineffective and sometimes ignored by employers. His report was one of 13 reports concerning workers compensation issues organized by the Workers Compensation Research Institute. Silverstein is the assistant director for Industrial Safety and Health in the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, OSHA has been successful in preventing 7 percent more on-the-job injuries in 2006 (4 percent) than in 1972 (down from 11 percent). However, Silverstein claims that the Bureau's methods of recording injuries are ineffective and that injuries have been misrepresented.

One of Silverstein's complaints is that many employers forego inexpensive or more burdensome safety protections for dangerous jobs and that their employees are paying the price. At least one worker is killed every week by trench cave-ins, which can be prevented by methods such as sloping, shoring and shielding. These methods are required by OSHA but are commonly ignored by employers.

Silverstein's report also questions OSHA regulations concerning hazardous chemicals. There are 70,000 hazardous chemicals used commercially nationwide and only 33 have corresponding OSHA regulations to protect workers from exposure. One OSHA regulated chemical, hexavalent chromium, was included in the regulations only after a court order demanded it.

Recommendation: OSHA Needs to Increase Inspections

Silverstein also lambasts the honor system OSHA uses to enforce their regulations. Employers are expected to uphold the OSHA standards but few work sites are ever inspected and 65 percent of OSHA inspections cited at least one violation.

The report also mentions an unfair distribution of risk and protective measures in the workplace. Temporary and leased workers file more workers compensation claims than permanent workers. This hints at employer discrimination in assigning the risky jobs and who is benefiting from safety protections.

The report suggests that OSHA should improve its administration procedures while reworking its relationship between the government, employers and employees. One way to make OSHA more effective is to add some teeth to the OSHA inspection program with larger numbers of inspected facilities and greater penalties for OSHA violations.