Labor - And A Whole Lot More

Neither Safe nor Healthy
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Every year, more than 6,000 American workers are killed on the job. More than 6 million are injured, at least half seriously. Another 60,000 die from their injuries or from cancer, lung and heart ailments and other occupational diseases caused by exposure to toxic substances.

The financial toll also is high - as much as $230 billion a year in health care costs and an estimated $88 billion in other costs to employers and workers, such as lost wages and production.

Trying to reduce workplace dangers, always a difficult task, has become even more difficult since the Bush administration took office and began what the United Auto Workers union cites as "a harsh, vindictive attack on health and safety standards."

The surest evidence of that has come in the administration's approach to attempts to combat the repetitive stress injuries that injure and disable at least 5,000 workers in a wide variety of occupations each and every day. For many, it can mean long-term or permanent affliction - chronic pain in the neck, back, shoulders, arms or wrists and other suffering resulting from the endlessly repetitive movements required in many jobs today, such as bending, reaching and typing, and the heavy lifting required in others.

It is by far the nation's No. 1 occupational health and safety problem. Yet President Bush successfully urged Congress to repeal regulations, developed by the Clinton administration with the guidance of safety experts, that had required employers to protect workers from repetitive stress injury.

Bush halted work on development of dozens of other safety and health regulations and revoked previously approved grants that were to go to unions, universities and labor-management groups to finance training programs for immigrant workers, small business employers and employers and workers in such high-risk industries as construction. He refused as well to support moves to extend protections of the law to some 40 million workers, including local and state government workers and farmworkers, whose occupation is the country's most dangerous.

Bush cut millions of dollars from the Labor Department's overall budget and from that of OSHA, the federal agency that's already so underfunded it has been unable to effectively enforce the Occupational Safety and Health Act that for 35 years has been the principal tool available for protecting workers from occupational hazards. Also getting much less funding have been the Mine Safety and Health Administration, National Institute of Safety and Health and other agencies concerned with safety.

Withholding funds needed by those attempting to make work safer isn't all. The administration has denied worker representatives an equal voice on the labor-management committees that advise OSHA on safety matters and has made certain that employers generally are able to ignore the law or at most pay small fines for violations.

Anyone doubting that the Safety and Health Act desperately needs reform and enforcement should read the shocking investigative report of last December by the New York Times' David Barstow.

He wrote of "workers decapitated on assembly lines, shredded in machinery, burned beyond recognition, electrocuted, buried alive - all of them killed, investigators reported, because their employers willfully violated workplace safety laws."

Barstow noted that those workers died and many others die or are injured because their employers intentionally ignored warnings by government inspectors about safety risks that could lead to injury or death.

The rare employers who are cited for ignoring warnings are seldom prosecuted, even those who are cited for repeated violations. The maximum sentence of those few who are tried and convicted for what the law defines as "willfully causing" a worker's death is six months in jail - "half the maximum for harassing a wild burro on federal lands," as Barstow noted.

Even that apparently is too much for President Bush. He wants to do away with legal requirements and allow his employer allies to adopt and enforce their own safety rules. That obviously wouldn't reduce the horrendous toll of job injury and death, but that's not the point, is it.

Copyright Dick Meister