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OSHA’s laissez-faire attitude

OSHA has seen its funding cut, when adjusted for inflation, every year since FY 2001, according to the watchdog group OMB Watch; those budget cuts, in turn, have been mirrored by a drop in the enforcement budget for the agency.

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During the course of the Bush administration, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has emphasized voluntary compliance over enforcement and inspections; by 2007, the situation had grown so bad that The New York Times ran a front page story noting that over that period OSHA had passed "only one major safety rule," which was issued by a court order. OSHA has seen its funding cut, when adjusted for inflation, every year since FY 2001, according to the watchdog group OMB Watch; those budget cuts, in turn, have been mirrored by a drop in the enforcement budget for the agency. Staffing levels at OSHA have suffered as well, with 1.5 agency members for every 100,000 American workers — half the staffing level that existed in 1980. Bush administration officials argue that their regulatory philosophy at OSHA has reduced the number of fatalities, but public health groups, unions have challenged those reports, claiming that companies are underreporting and some members of Congress have harshly criticized the approach.

The movement away from enforcement was revealed early when President Bush signed legislation in 2001 overturning a new ergonomics standard that the Clinton White House had pushed through before leaving office. More than a dozen proposed regulations were killed by the end of 2001 alone. The New York Times has reported that OSHA stopped dozens of existing regulations and delayed adopting new standards, even on hazards that the agency itself has acknowledged are dangerous. According to Senator Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington and chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee’s Workplace Subcommittee, the average penalty imposed by OSHA for “willful violations was just $36,720 – about half of the maximum allowable penalty,” in 2007. Some members of the GOP have also questioned OSHA’s approach. Representative Howard McKeon, Republican of California and the ranking Republican on the House Committee on Education and Labor, said that there is “a culture problem within OSHA,” regarding oversight enforcement. When reached for a comment, a Department of Labor spokeswoman responded that “[OSHA] has achieved the lowest injury, illness, and fatality rates in recorded OSHA history. American workers are safer today thanks to the dedication and service of Assistant Secretary Edwin G. Foulke, Jr. and their team.”

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At the end of its term, the Bush administration fast tracked a proposal that would take the workplace risk-assessment process away from OSHA scientists and give its control to policymakers at the Department of Labor. The Washington Post editorialized that the move represented a last-minute attempt to sabotage OSHA’s future ability to regulate workplace dangers. The administration also proposes that the Department of Labor be forced to seek more public comment before adopting any new rules on worker protections, which Democrats and union officials view as an attempt to make it harder for the next president to regulate toxins in the workplace. President-Elect Barack Obama has pledged to increase OSHA’s funding, provide more health and safety training for employers and workers, and reinstate the ergonomic standards.