The ceremony papered over three years of contention about the shape of a federal program to oversee work safety throughout the entire economy. It left to be answered the most important question of all: was this the right policy for both worker and employer?
Washington's first economywide engagement in workplace safety started with the creation in 1934 of the Bureau of Labor Standards, primarily a data collecting agency.
In the late 1950s, the federal government began to regulate in detail maritime and public contractor safety, prompting business objections.
The public became concerned in the 1960s over environmental hazards. That to some degree conditioned public receptivity to alarms about occupational risks.One hundred uranium workers were found to have died from work exposure since 1947. Black lung, the scourge of coal dust on the increasingly mechanized underground coal miner, revealed the weak state of safety standards in that industry.
And sudden tragedy: On Nov. 20, 1968, 78 miners died from a coal mine explosion in Farmington, W.V.
The ALF-CIO, liberal republicans, and eventually the U.S. Chamber of Commerce worked out a deal acceptable to the Nixon White House. Core ingredients included a new federal agency to publish safety standards and impose penalties. Since then, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's scope of powers has not materially changed.
It is not clear to what extent OSHA contributed to the decline in the frequency of work injuries from 11.1 per hundred workers in 1973 to 3.6 per hundred in 2009. Contributing causes include a shift of employment to less risky jobs, investment in safer and more productive machinery, and better risk management.
The growth of self-insurance and high deductibles for workers' comp gave employers a sharper incentive to pay close attention to work safety. (Research on the effect of experience modifications as a safety prod has mixed findings.)
OSHA's discretionary powers have been bitterly fought over, even up to the Supreme Court. OSHA's effectiveness has been examined in piecemeal fashion by scholars. On balance, their studies report that OSHA inspections and fines can work to reduce injuries, but not under all conditions. As OSHA and its delegated agencies in many states employ only about 2,000 field inspectors, the effect of enforcement would have to be mainly a sentinel effect, and a weak one at that.
"What ifs" abound. What if organized labor had aggressively campaigned for improvements in safety through collective bargaining? Labor leaders had not made safety a top priority. It was, as one said, a topic that came after the coffee break in contract negotiations. Safety became a hot issue for the AFL-CIO in the 1960s largely because of intramural politics.
What if, as some economists suggested, there were tax on work injuries, which might boost the cost of safety failures, and perhaps work better than federal inspections and fines? What if government inspectors were augmented or replaced by certified private auditing firms, an idea that has been entertained from time to time by both liberals and conservatives?
This agency deserves a balanced assessment of its effectiveness; something Congress is unlikely to commission.
PETER ROUSMANIERE is an expert on the workers' compensation industry.
October 15, 2011
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