Congress passed OSHA in 1970 to "ensure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women." The first OSHA standards, like guard rails on walkways and staircases and "lockout/tag out," which stops machinery from being turned on during repairs, are credited with preventing 400,000 workplace deaths.
But political opposition has prevented OSHA from keeping up with changes in the American workplace and keeping down the rate of workplace injuries and deaths. More than 5,000 workers die on the job every year. And at least 10 times that number die every year from occupationally-caused diseases like liver cancer from vinyl chloride, lung disease from asbestos, and leukemia from benzene. And according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 11.1 million people get hurt or sick on the job every year, three times more than the number of injuries and illnesses that are officially reported.
During the 111th Congress, the BlueGreen Alliance supported the Robert C. Byrd Miner Safety and Health Act for three reasons:
- OSHA Penalties Should Have More Impact. Unlike other agencies, OSHA penalties have barely been increased to reflect rising costs or inflation. Last year the average penalty for a serious violation of OSHA laws was $965. A violation is considered "serious" if it poses a substantial probability of death or serious physical harm to workers. The Safety and Health Act will also make criminal violations of the OSHA laws a felony instead of a misdemeanor and will expand the law to cover cases that involve serious bodily injuries, not just worker deaths. Individual corporate officers could be held criminally liable for knowingly violating the law.
- Hazards Should Be Fixed, Even When Citations Are Fought. After the 2008 OSHA inspection at the Anacortes Refinery revealed 150 deficiencies, Tesoro managers got to work. But the focus of their work was how to get their lawyers to pressure OSHA to lower the penalties, not how to fix the safety and health problems that OSHA uncovered. The proposed law will clarify that employers must fix serious, willful, and repeat violations even when they are challenging the OSHA citation for the violations. The Safety and Health Act will also give OSHA the power to assess a maximum penalty of $7,000 a day when an employer fails to correct a serious, willful or repeat violation by the date set by OSHA.
- Whistleblowers Should Have More Protection and Injured Workers and Their Families Should Have More Rights. OSHA must have more tools to protect the rights of workers who blow the whistle on the safety and health problems in their place of employment. The Safety and Health Act will give workers the right to refuse to do hazardous work and clarify that employees cannot be discriminated against for reporting injuries, illnesses or unsafe conditions. Injured workers, their families and the families of workers who die in work-related incidents the right to be informed and involved in investigations of workplace accidents. The bill will give victims and their families the right to meet with federal investigators and give workers and their representatives greater rights in the enforcement system.