EHS OutLoud Blog

Will Congress Turn Its Back on the Safety of America’s Workers?

by Kathleen Rest
Mar 22, 2017

Let’s say someone you care about – mother, father, wife, husband, partner, son, daughter, friend and neighbor – works in a facility that’s had a history of serious injuries or illnesses. You know, like burns, amputations and broken bones that happen at work. Or head, eye or back injuries. Or problems that send workers to emergency rooms, clinics or doctors with breathing difficulties, skin damage or other health issues related to chemical exposures or other dangerous conditions at work. 

For over 40 years, larger employers in high-hazard industries have been required to keep accurate records of these types of serious, disabling events, and to maintain those records for five years. These records are vital to understanding the extent and nature of serious workplace injuries and illnesses in our nation’s larger workplaces and PREVENTING THEM.

OSHA uses these records to allocate its meager resources for inspection, enforcement and assisting employers with compliance. Employers, unions and workers use these records to identify dangerous conditions and take steps to fix them. The Department of Labor uses these records to publish statistics on occupational injury and illness rates, which are important data sources for researchers and professionals who study or advise on occupational safety and health.

Because these injury and illness records are so integral to safety and health at work, OSHA can cite and fine employers when they falsify, under-report or otherwise keep inaccurate records to evade an inspection and/or avoid making the investments needed to improve workplace safety and health conditions. And there is clear evidence that stiff record keeping fines have stimulated improvements in safety programs and conditions – sometimes extending well beyond the particular workplace to an industry writ large.

In 2012, a court decision overturned four decades of precedent and made it impossible for OSHA to enforce against record-keeping violations in dangerous industries if the violations are more than six months old. Essentially, this decision held employers harmless for failing to keep accurate records of serious injuries and illnesses that happened outside a six-month window, or over a period that would reveal patterns of record-keeping violations. It also put additional onus on OSHA, with its limited budget and inspection resources, to catch poor record-keeping within six months.

One of the three judges involved in the decision indicated that OSHA could cite continuing violations of its record-keeping rule if it clarified the rule.  Which it did in December 2016; clarifying that an employer’s duty to record an injury or illness continues for the full five-year record-retention period. You can see more here.

This clarification was critical, as these records save lives and prevent serious and sometimes permanent disability. Hard as it is to believe, job hazards kill over 4,800 workers a year and seriously injure another 3 million – in America! These are our loved ones, our family breadwinners, engines of our economy.  You know, the ones that make America great.

This Worker Protection Is on the Chopping Block NOW

Perhaps you’ve been following how our Congress is wielding a rarely used statute to overturn recently enacted regulations that that don’t comport with their ideological and partisan preferences, even if those rules emerged after years of study, stakeholder and public input and a rigorous rule-making process. We’ve written about how Congress is using this statute, the Congressional Review Act (CRA), here and here.

We can expect the Senate to follow the House of Representatives in using the Congressional Review Act to overturn this important worker protection. They will use familiar corporate and industry arguments.  It’s burdensome paperwork, it’s costly, it’s a job killer.

The problem is killer jobs, not job killers.

Actually, it’s not an overstatement to say that overturning this record-keeping rule endangers workers and could itself be a killer. Seventy-five civil society organizations called on the Senate to oppose any attempt to invoke the Congressional Review Act and repeal this rule (see letter here).

Protecting our nation’s workforce is not a partisan issue. And powerful, regulated industries seeking to pad their bottom line should not be the predominant voice when it comes to public protections – including workplace safety. If this president and this Congress say they stand with America’s workers, then it’s time to give meaning to those words.

So please, pick up the phone and call your senators this week urging them to oppose this Congressional Review Act (CRA) resolution (H.J.Res 83 – S.J. Res 27). It’s not just record keeping. It’s the safety and health of our loved ones.

About the Author: As executive director of UCS, Kathleen Rest oversees programs and operations for the Union of Concerned Scientists, drawing upon a wealth of experience in government, academia and the nonprofit sector.

Discuss this Blog Entry 3

on Mar 23, 2017

If an incident occurs that is serious enough to call OSHA into play, they should be able to investigate and make a report within 6 months. The reigning in of OSHA is, to a degree, a relief. If you've ever had to deal with some (not all) of the inspectors and dealt with their arrogance: refusal to listen, making erroneous allegations that get shot down during an appeal process; it feels like it's not about employee safety or improving the workers' environment, but more like justifying their existence and making money for their agency.
OSHA absolutely has a place in today's world. But I don't think the original intention was for it to be a policing organization, but rather a teaching and mentoring organization for the improvement of working environments.

on Mar 29, 2017

OSHA should be reigned in. Ask most OSHA investigators to explain one of their regulations, sub sections, part a and b and they are hard pressed to give an answer other than to refer to the standard of 1929.
Yes, workers do have a right to be safe and to feel that they are working in a safe work place and also to know that their employer is providing a safety first work place.
But OSHA has gotten away from working WITH the employers; for the most part they work against the employer. They are offended when you call a consultation at an OSHA inspection, they are offended when you show them your records, your safety training manuals, that you have done all that was right by THEIR regulations, but yet they seem to find something to fine you for.
IF there is a serious infraction or an incident, yes, by all means OSHA needs to investigate, report and do this in timely manner. But if anyone has dealt with OSHA, you know that it takes months if not years for them to submit their report and findings.
OSHA needs to be more driven to train, teach, guide and empower the employer as well as the employee with the knowledge and tools (communication, open door requests for consultations, etc) to make the workplace safety friendly. OSHA right now is not a welcome sight to any job site, employer, office or board room. OSHA wants to do right by their agency - start with opening your doors, advise not fine, guide not crush, work with employers not against them.

on Apr 6, 2017

As stated before - OSHA should be reigned in. They police, they bully, and they are offended when you have your documents in order, complied, they are offended when you ask for consulting. They are to help, not hinder. This article was written by a person who with the Union of Concerned Scientists - who most likely has not had to deal with an OSHA rep face to face. OSHA needs to be controlled and held accountable. They need to teach, guide, empower the employer and the employee. Incidents are to be taken seriously and OSHA should step in when needed and assess what should be done. But the article makes it sound as if reigning in OSHA will cause accidents to increase, workers will be thrown into the 19th century work culture! "Actually, it’s not an overstatement to say that overturning this record-keeping rule endangers workers and could itself be a killer"...please! Employees are empowered by state agencies for their job and work place protection.

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