Worker safety an issue for 2004 elections

North Carolina senator and Democratic presidential aspirant John Edwards criticized the Bush administration for failing to protect U.S. workers and issued a comprehensive program to strengthen the Occcupational Saftey and Health Administration (OSHA) on Dec. 31.

Edwards was responding to a three-part, front page New York Times investigative report that exposed the highly hazardous and death-threatening workplace conditions workers are facing. (“A Trench Caves In, a Young Worker Is Dead. Is It a Crime?” by David Barstow, Dec. 19-22, 2003.) The Edwards campaign made specific mention of the Times article, which documented OSHA’s failure to seek criminal prosecution in 93 percent of the 1,242 cases of willful safety violations that resulted in the death of a worker.

Vowing to create a “culture of enforcement” by appointing a head of OSHA who is “a workers’ advocate,” Edwards’ program called for the following:

• Requiring OSHA to refer all cases of willful safety violations to the Department of Justice for possible criminal prosecution.

• Increasing criminal penalties for worker deaths from six months in jail to 10 years.

• Requiring OSHA to notify workers and their unions of the progress of investigations and giving them the opportunity to comment on proposed settlements.

• Instituting ergonomics rules and regulating reactive chemicals.

The prosecution of bosses who willfully expose workers to dangers that seriously harm or kill workers has been an issue for decades, ever since the OSHA law was enacted in 1970. In the hundreds of cases where workers died due to willful violations, everyone – senior managers and corporate owners – should have been tried for murder and, if found guilty, sentenced to major prison time for their offenses. But none of them were.



‘Willful Violation’

The law gives broad enforcement power to OSHA inspectors to deal with employers who are in “willful violation” of OSHA rules and regulations. A willful violation means an employer was aware of hazardous conditions and intentionally didn’t change them. Inspectors have the ability to impose very large fines on employers if they cite for a willful violation. Another option for the OSHA inspector is the “repeat violation” if the violation is the same as previously cited but at a different location. Finally, there is an “imminent danger” violation where a certain death or serious injury might occur, and work must stop immediately.

The Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, the two key trade associations that fight against every OSHA rule and enforcement activity, opposed all of these serious citations, but came out most strongly against the “willful” designation.



Reagan/Bush

In the first 10 years after the enactment of OSHA, labor and its allies took the lead in establishing aggressive methods of applying its rules. When Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush took over the White House, the whole OSHA system was turned on its head. During those 12 years, the establishment of new OSHA standards and enforcement powers were sharply abridged. Unfortunately, the eight years of the Clinton administration did not return to OSHA the powers it had during its first 10 years.. The political contributions from employers to powerful Democrats and Republicans during OSHA’s 30 years of existence have blunted efforts to have OSHA fulfill its congressional mandates.



An issue in 2004 elections? You bet!

That takes us to this year’s elections.

It is real working-class issues like these that will bring workers and their families to the polls to vote their own self-interests. If this happens in the mass way that is possible, Bush and his anti-worker, anti-community bunch will be out the door.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org.