Workplace Tragedies Point to Need for States to Take Lead in Workplace Safety

April has seen two major industrial accidents that have captured the national eye. Explosions at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia and the Deepwater Horizon oil rig off the coast of Louisiana claimed the lives of forty workers and injured thirty-eight. Much of the media attention on these tragedies has focused on the culpability of employers and enforcement capacity at federal agencies responsible for regulating mine and offshore drilling safety. However, there are proactive steps states can take to address occupational safety hazards and ensure people do not have to sacrifice their personal safety in exchange for a paycheck.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) not only established a federal enforcement system, it also created a matching-funds program for states to operate their own safety enforcement programs. OSHA will provide a 50-50 match to help states cover the cost of enforcement programs that meet or exceed the federal agency standards. State participation in the program is crucial to enhancing enforcement capacity nationwide. For instance, OSHA does not cover state and local government workplaces, so there are currently an estimated 8 million public sector workers without occupational safety oversight. To date, twenty-one states have established qualifying programs, while four more states (Connecticut, Illinois, New Jersey, and New York) have enforcement programs limited to covering public sector employees.

The AFL-CIO  released a report this week documenting the serious lack of federal safety enforcement capacity. The report analyzes recently published data by the Bureau of Labor Statistics which shows higher than normal casualty rates among immigrant and Latino workers, as well as construction workers. Nationally, the US has only 16% of the total number of inspectors recommended by the United Nations' International Labor Office (ILO). (The ILO sets a standard of one inspector per 10,000 workers. The US had only one inspector per 60,723 workers as of 2008.) Given this deficit, states have a powerful opportunity to bridge this gap by bolstering workplace safety enforcement that prevents work-site tragedies like those seen this month.

Under the Obama administration, the federal government is taking steps to improve occupational safety, but requires state cooperation to establish the necessary enforcement capacity. To this end, Congress introduced two pieces of legislation this year. The Protecting America’s Workers Act strengthens federal safety standards, while the Ensuring Worker Safety Act would enable a more cooperative relationship between OSHA and state safety agencies. The availability of federal matching dollars makes it possible for states to improve workplace safety at a manageable cost, when combined with innovative enforcement mechanisms that generate revenue for the state at low cost. For instance, private attorneys general provisions being included in wage enforcement and misclassification bills increase enforcement capacity by enabling workers to file claims using their own lawyers, with the state receiving a portion of the fines levied by the court against guilty employers. A similar provision in state occupational safety programs would assist states in ramping up enforcement capacity while limiting budgetary exposure. As with paid sick days, occupational safety programs can be an innovative, cost-effective step states can take to ensure that working and middle class families do not lose basic workplace standards as the economy improves.

AFL-CIO - Death on the Job Report, 2010
AFL-CIO - Protecting America’s Workers Act
International Labor Organization — Programme on Safety and Health at Work and in the Environment
Nevada Rep. Dina Titus - Testimony on OSHA Legislation Before Nevada Legislative Commission Subcommittee
Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) - State Occupational Safety and Health Plans
OSHA - Sec. 18 of the Occupational Safety and Health Act — State Jurisdiction and State Plans
OSHA - How does a State establish its own program?
OSHA - Directory of States With Approved Occupational Safety and Health Plans
Occupational Safety and Health State Plan Association (OSHSPA)The Nation - Hilda Solis: Labor's New Sheriff