Opinion: The OSHA absurdity Featured

9:45am EDT July 22, 2002

Charles Jeffress is undoubtedly a devoted family man and a pretty good fellow to have as a friend. But as the head of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, he is a damned menace to society.

Workplace safety is no less important than it was 100 years ago, when gruesome crimes like the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, in which nearly 200 poor immigrant women suffered tragic deaths, galvanized our nation to action. But circumstances have changed, and OSHA is adapting slowly or not at all.

OSHA was created as a command-and-control regulatory agency: mountains of regulations and reporting requirements, backed up by a small army of inspectors and stiff penalties for even small deviations. In recent years, internal and external critics complained that bureaucratic rules were becoming more important than tangible improvements in workplace safety. Congressional hearings and media reports in the early 1990s gave substance to those complaints, and OSHA came under public pressure to reform.

The changes have been positive. There have been fewer workplace injuries every year since 1995. Although some disputes remain, most OSHA field offices now seek to work cooperatively with employers and workers.

Unfortunately, this progress does not sit well in some precincts in Washington, D.C., where some officials long for a return to an outmoded — and discredited — command-and-control regulatory approach.

First, OSHA recently — and infamously — sought to make employers responsible for assuring compliance with federal safety rules in the homes of employees who, on a full-time, part-time, or occasional basis, work from their homes. OSHA higher-ups calculated (correctly) that the public would not cry out about inflicting legal, financial and even criminal liabilities on employers for such “crimes” as potential fire hazards posed by employees’ untidy home computer areas.

But Mr. Jeffress and his lieutenants failed to foresee Americans’ outrage at the prospect of a legion of safety inspectors and compliance officers invading their homes.

In the face of the resulting political dung-storm, the Secretary of Labor rescinded the OSHA ruling and promised that American workers would remain safe and private in their homes. Nevertheless, tens of millions of Americans working (happily) outside the traditional workplace (and beyond the reach of OSHA) can’t sit well with OSHA higher-ups. Don’t be surprised if this issue crops up in another guise.

Second, small businesses have typically been spared from some OSHA paperwork and administrative requirements. This made sense in that detailed paperwork requirements are a particular hardship for smaller businesses, and the incidence of workplace injuries is generally lower among smaller businesses.

However, the increasing (disturbing?) fraction of working Americans employed by small businesses seems to have attracted attention at OSHA, and it responded last year with new regulations that will, for the first time, bring businesses with fewer than 50 employees under the full lash of OSHA paperwork requirements. Potential costs are estimated in the billions; potential benefits are not apparent.

Third, after years of battling Congress, skeptical scientists and opponents within the Clinton administration, Mr. Jeffress realized his dream of issuing federal ergonomics regulations. Never mind that these regulations don’t provide a useful definition of ergonomics and ergonomics-related injury.

They call for employers to correct conditions in any part of the workplace in which an ergonomics injury is reported, restrict workloads of injured workers and train workers to identify ergonomics problems. Virtually every general industry workplace, regardless of size or injury history, will fall under the new rules.

For manufacturers and most commercial concerns, just a single reported incident (e.g., chronic back pain) will trigger disruptions. Even office work environments will be affected; ergonomics experts estimate it should be possible to make offices ergonomics-safe for $150 per work station, plus consultants’ fees.

Although ergonomics has been around for a while, enough people disagree about its scope and validity that the National Academy of Science last year undertook a detailed inquiry into the issue. OSHA, of course, showed a level of disdain in having to wait for the results, despite U.S. Department of Labor reports showing DOL-defined ergonomics-related injuries are declining. Mr. Jeffress has responded to criticism by essentially daring employers to stop him.

Productivity gains have fueled a sustained economic expansion that has made our nation more prosperous and secure than at any other time in its history. OSHA’s new regulatory forays (and the others that are sure to follow) are akin to the medieval practice of applying leeches to the skin to improve health.

If this nonsense isn’t halted, America’s economic prospects in the coming decade will be diminished.

Cliff Shannon is president of SMC Business Councils, a Pittsburgh-based business association for smaller businesses across the state. After composing this piece at home, he was briefly detained by federal agents for suspected workplace safety violations but was released without charges being filed. Reach him at (412) 371-1500.