A May Day Look at American Workplace Safety

The West Texas plant explosion should prompt a close look at how America handles workplace safety.

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A fire smokes near a fertilizer plant that exploded in West, Texas, on April 18, 2013.

Today marks May Day, the old spring festival now closely associated with the workers' rights movement. Around the world, laborers are taking to the street to demand better pay, benefits, working conditions or, in the case of Bangladesh, justice for the more than 400 workers who died in a recent building collapse.

Here in the U.S., May Day protests are certainly more muted, but that shouldn't take away from the fact that American workers face several big labor issues all their own. The recent explosion at a Texas fertilizer plant that killed at least 15 people is a grim reminder of what lax labor law can help cause.

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The Senate yesterday announced an investigation into what went wrong at the plant. One of the leading problems was likely that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration – which is responsible for the enforcement of workplace safety regulations – hadn't inspected the site since February 1985, meaning that it had not been checked by the agency in this writer's lifetime. As Randy Rabinowitz, director of regulatory policy at the Center for Effective Government, explains in the New York Times (emphasis added):

OSHA has too few resources to do the job assigned to it. This year, OSHA has a budget of $535 million to protect workers at over 8 million workplaces. OSHA conducts about 40,000 inspections each year. Together with state OSHA programs, it has 2,000 inspectors; with those resources, federal OSHA can conduct an inspection of every facility only once every 131 years.

But that barely scrapes the surface of the problem when it comes to worker safety in America. In 2011, 4,609 workers were killed on the job in America, nearly 13 per day, according to official statistics (compared to 17 all of that year due to terrorism). The Government Accountability Office has found that it takes an average of seven years for the government to write and implement a new workplace safety rule. Twenty-five percent of rules take more than 10 years to complete. At the state level, workplace safety agencies are plagued by poor retention of inspectors and lousy training.

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Making matters worse, automatic reductions under the so-called “sequester” will cut the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's budget by 8.2 percent, resulting in 2,100 fewer inspections. Republicans, of course, have called for even deeper cuts to the agency (in one instance pushing for a return to its 2004 level of funding). As with bank regulations, it seems the GOP hopes to make it impossible for workplace regulators to do their jobs effectively, thus making the case that government is incompetent a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The odds that Congress will do much of anything to boost workplace safety in the near-term are next to none. As Reuters noted, the last time the House committee with jurisdiction over worker safety even held a hearing on the matter was in June 2012; the subject was "Promoting Safe Workplaces Through Voluntary Protection Programs." So it will be up to the administration to use the Department of Labor and any other levers at its disposal to rectify what should be considered a national abomination, but sadly, doesn't garner much in the way of headlines until it's too late.

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