Brief # 103 Health and Gender Policy
Will Biden Save OSHA? An Assessment of the Weakened Regulatory Agency
By Lily Lady Cook
Summary: The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was founded in 1971 to protect workers from hazards on the job. OSHA has faced intermittent funding challenges since the ‘70s, and reached new lows under the previous administration. Currently, the U.S. has one labor inspector for every 70,000 people although The International Labor Organization recommends one for every 10,000 people. This means that about 1,850 inspectors are responsible for overseeing the safety of 130 million workers.
At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Department of Labor criticized OSHA for its lack of regulatory guidance and decreased on-site inspections. On the campaign trail, President Biden called upon then-President Trump to double the amount of OSHA investigators; once in office, he instructed OSHA to release Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) guidelines for employers by March 15. OSHA did not follow through on this order, possibly due to legal barriers related to the ‘grave danger’ precondition necessary for their release. In the absence of federal guidelines, separate states established their own ETSs. OSHA did, however, issue a National Emphasis Program in March, which increased pandemic-related inspection mandates for high hazard industries.
As part of the American Jobs Plan, Biden called on Congress to allocate $48 billion to develop workforce infrastructure and protection, of which $10 billion would be allocated for increased penalty enforcements. Yet most of this plan involves vague language about giving the government “the tools it needs to ensure employers are providing workers with….safe and healthy workplaces” by supporting increased “capacity” at agencies such as OSHA. The plan leaves unclear exactly how many more investigators are needed and how much existing penalties should be increased.
Still, many labor activists find optimism in Biden’s nominee to lead OSHA, Doug Parker. Parker began his career as an attorney at the United Mine Workers of America. He later served under the Obama administration at the Mine Safety and Health Administration, and is currently the head of California’s division of OSHA (Cal/OSHA). Cal/OSHA outperforms most other state OSHA agencies in citations for safety issues, and its ETS on COVID-19 was far more detailed than those of other states.
It remains to be seen when Parker’s Senate confirmation hearing will be, as none is yet scheduled.
OSHA and other agencies are plagued by chronic disinvestment, and it’s no surprise that some states stepped in to establish their own regulations during the pandemic; California, Michigan, Oregon and other states issued their own COVID-19 ETSs. Moreover, 28 states are authorized by OSHA to operate their own safety programs, which often have stricter regulations than federal standards.
While this might at first glance instill confidence in states’ ability to self-regulate, is this really the direction we want to move in? It’s true that stronger state laws could help with safety controls, and increased state budgets would allow more leeway for individualized programs. But having stronger federal rules and enforcement mechanisms would be more advantageous to the country as a whole. This would avoid the problem of big manufacturers seeking out states with fast-and-loose rules and ensure that state partisanship wouldn’t affect worker safety outcomes.
An increased budget for OSHA is a good place to start, and with Doug Parker at the helm, things could really turn around. The pandemic has underscored the vulnerabilities of factory and other essential workers, giving some momentum to some much-needed changes.
Yet OSHA must do more than just increase its number of inspectors and citations. The agency needs to keep up with modernizing industries by crafting prompt responses to technologies with new associated risk factors. OSHA’s record of swift action is dismal: it took decades to change a rule about crystalline silica dust.
It remains to be seen whether OSHA will have the budget for the effective implementation of these changes, which will ultimately be the determining factor for any sweeping reforms.
-Contact Bobby Scott, the chairman of the Congressional Committee on Education and Labor, the committee that oversees OSHA
–Attend a public meeting over zoom: While there are no upcoming hearings scheduled for the Health, Employment, Labor and Pensions Subcommittee, you can watch previous meetings here.
–Know your rights: OSHA covers most workers in the private sector and some in the public sector. Their website offers information about safety equipment standards as well as forms to request an inspection or report injuries on the job.