True or false: Vast majority of employers care deeply and passionately about their employees

Imagine testifying before a congressional committee as the head of the FDIC and you’re asked “do the vast majority of banks care deeply and passionately about their customers?” Or as the head of the FAA and you’re asked “do you think the vast majority of airlines care deeply and passionately about their passengers?” Or the head of a State Insurance Bureau and you’re asked “do you think the vast majority of HMO’s care deeply and passionately about their policy holders?” That’s one of the odd questions posed to OSHA chief David Michaels,PhD, MPH at a hearing on March 16 before a subcommittee of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. The subcommittee chairman Jim Jordan (R-OH) asked:

“Mr. Michaels, would you agree that the vast majority of employers care deeply about the well being of their employees?”

Michaels, who is an epidemiologist by training, replied: “I think so. I don’t have evidence, but that’s my feeling as well.” Oddly, the chairman wasn’t satisfied leaving it there and the dialogue went on like this:

Jordan: “Particularly in the high tech world we live in today. There is so much investment in their employees, they put so much money and they want their employees there because that’s what keeps their businesses profitable, in this high-tech international marketplace we are in. And I would venture to say the vast, vast majority of employers care deeply about their employees.”

Michaels: “I’d like to agree with you.”

Jordan snapped: “Let me ask you, do you think you care more about their employees than the employer who employs them? Is that what you’re insinuating?”

Michaels: “I’m not suggesting that at all…”

Jordan interrupts: “Do you think a bureaucrat in the federal government cares more about the employees at Mike Kelly’s business than he does?” referring to the Republican congressman from Butler, PA who runs and auto dealer and body shop, and is on the subcommittee.

Michaels: I would never suggest that…”

Jordan interrupts: “Well, but that’s what you’re saying when I asked if the vast majority of employers do not care passionately and deeply about the well-being of their employees.”

Michaels: “Well, I think you’re right but…”

Jordan: “Why didn’t you say that when I asked you the question?”

Michaels: “I think I did say that.”

Jordan: “I don’t think you did. You said I’d like to think that.”

Michaels: “No, I said, I think that—-excuse me, but I think it’s also clear that we see employers who….”

Had the chairman been more respectful of the witness and not interrupted him, I think Dr. Michaels could have provided a few examples of employers who clearly showed little care or concern for their employees. The vast majority of employers will never see an OSHA inspector. Less than 1% of worksites have on federal or state OSHA compliance officer on their property in any given year. The ones that OSHA is looking for are those who disregard workers’ safety and put employees’ lives at risk. No, it’s not the vast majority, but it’s a businesses like C.A. Franc construction company which OSHA investigator found had WILLFULLY violated safety rules for fall protection. C.A. Franc’s law breaking led to the death of Carl Beck Jr., a 29 year old father of two young children. Or a business like Endres Processing for WILLFULLY violating rules to prevent explosions. Or Cintas where employee Eleazar Torres-Gomez was pulled into an industrial dryer and killed. The list goes on and on.

But, chairman Jordan was not interested in hearing any of that. It was obvious to me that he had at least one goal in mind. He wanted badly—-oh so badly—to have the OSHA chief say that he was in favor of regulations. [Either you're with us, or against us.]

It was actually kind of silly to watch. Here is the head of a regulatory agency—an agency created by Congress to issue and enforce regulations—-and a overzealous subcommittee chairman who thinks it would be a big feather in his cap if he can get the agency chief to say he believes that new regulations are necessary.

Jordan: “Let me be clear, are you saying we need clarification, or we need more regulation?”

Michaels: “More regulation…”

Jordan interrupting: “Really?

Michaels: “Yes, you need clarity. Employer say what should we do…”

Jordan interrupting: “You’re saying both things. You’re saying clarity and your saying more regulation.”

Michaels: “Well, the regulations give you clarity.” [I love that line.]

Jordan interrupts, then goes onto a different topic, but comes back again to try to get another feather in this cap. [It makes me wonder if the Republican leadership has some scoreboard to tally the number of times they can get Obama officials to say they think regulations are necessary.]

Jordan: “You said earlier, when I was questioning, we need more regulation.”

Michaels: “There are areas where we don’t have regulation that we need regulation.”

Jordan: “The gentleman’s testimony is: ‘you think we need more regulation.’”

Michaels: “Yes.”

Jordan: “I would also assume there is a compliance cost for business owners relative to regulation?”

Michaels: “Yes, and we need to balance those out obviously, we need to think about both of those things.”

The high points of the hearing for me were the attempts by Congressman Elijah Cummings (D-MD) and Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) to reject the Republican leadership’s rhetoric that regulations are job killers and stifle economic growth. Both referred to a statement by Tammy Miser of Lexington, KY whose 33 year old brother was killed on-the-job because of an inadequate OSHA regulation and his employer’s failure to follow well-known safety practices. Kucinich used information from Miser’s statement to illustrate that failing to prevent workplace disasters—with effective regulations and enforcement—not only can kills workers, but kills jobs. As Miser noted:

“In 2009, Con Agra’s Slim Jim plant exploded, 3 workers were killed and 71 were injured. This disaster could have been prevented if OSHA had regulations requiring natural gas to be purged out of doors. Before the disaster 700 people worked at the factory. Now the factory is closing.”

And,

“The T-2 gasoline additive factory near Jacksonville, Florida had a runaway reaction in December 2007 involving highly reactive sodium metal. The explosion killed 4 and injured 32, including 28 at surrounding businesses. … Sadly, the owner of the T-2 factory was among those killed by the explosion. Three adjacent businesses had to relocate from the industrial area, and a fourth business–a trucking company–was put out of business due to the damage.”

These somber examples provided a dose of reality on why Members of Congress shouldn’t paint all regulations with the same brush. Some regulations can save lives, can prevent injuries, can save health-care costs, can save jobs, and can create more efficiency in work practices.

The low-point of the hearing came when Cong. Mike Kelly (R-PA) suggested that we’ve got all the worker safety regulations we need. Anything new from OSHA would simply be piling on, and trying to regulate common sense.

Kelly:

“I’ve got to tell you, I’m a private business person. …You know the biggest problem employers have, is workers who won’t use the safety [equipment]. When I go out into the shop, my guys are supposed to wear a hard hat when they have a car up in the air, they’re supposed to wear goggles when they have a car up in the air, they’re supposed to wear goggles when they use a grinding wheel. What people are supposed to do, whether there’s a regulation or not, is kind of secondary. …But the questions of the hearing at some point, is the cost of regulation reaching a level where we can’t legislate complete safety because people’s nature is to take the easy way out of everything?”

He went on:

“…you cannot legislate people using common sense. …We keep coming up with new regulations to keep people from doing dumb things that they do to themselves. … So, I’m not putting down what you [Dr. Michaels] are doing, and we all by gosh want everybody to come to work and get through the end of the day healthy and go back home. I want to see everybody get to be a grandfather, I’m a grandfather, but I also want to see my business survive, and I don’t want to get to the point where I’m regulated out of business because of something I can’t possibly watch 24 hours a day. It is just impossible.”

I call this the low-point because it seems the Congressman believes that all the really bad safety and health hazards have already been addressed by OSHA regulations. That working conditions are so safe that workers today are only getting injured or killed because “they are doing dumb things” to themselves.

Did the 11 workers who died on the Deepwater Horizon rig, do a dumb thing to themselves? No. The owners and operators fail to manage the risks of the complex drilling process. Did the six workers who died at the Kleen Energy Plant in Connecticut do a dumb thing to themselves? No. The construction contractors decided to use an extremely dangerous procedure that caused the massive explosion. Did Tammy Miser’s brother Shawn, 33, do a dumb thing? No. His employer Hayes Lemmerz was reckless in failing to address the combustible dust hazards throughout the plant.

Here’s a chance for public health and worker safety advocates to share with Cong. Kelly and other lawmakers information on at least a dozen serious workplace hazards that are not addressed effectively by any OSHA standard. I’d start my list with the injury risk faced by poultry plant workers who are expected to make 20,000 cuts on turkey carcasses over their 10-hour workshift. I’d add the highway road crew workers who are expected to repair concrete and asphalt surfaces while “protected” from speeding cars with traffic cones. And construction workers who are killed by deadly gases in confined spaces, or suffer disabling respiratory disease and cancer from exposure to silica dust.

I’ve no doubt that some, perhaps many, employers already address these and many other hazards because they do care about the health and safety of their workers. They don’t wait until they are told to do so by a government agencies. But, not all employers are created equal. That’s why OSHA is needed.

Comments

  1. #1 Samantha Vimes
    March 19, 2011

    Yeah, my employer really cared when they wouldn’t let me take a sample of the weird black powder around the vents when I developed asthma on the job as an adult, so I could get it analyzed, because *they* said it wasn’t mold but people in that area coughed and complained about a moldy smell. The company dumped the building only a couple of years after dumping me.
    They also really cared when my husband kept checking on the delay of his request for ergonomic improvements at his desk when he was getting crippling arm pain while working with mono. The accumulated repetitive motion injury over the course of *months* of asking for low-cost improvements to his work space meant they spent far more in sending him to physical therapists and physicians. After they said they could do no more for him, he had to find a doctor at his own expense who could actually alleiviate the pain.

    All businesses care about is not getting sued, and if you are too agreeable– not the sueing type– they feel free to screw you over.

  2. #2 JLowe
    March 20, 2011

    Call me overly cynical, but these hearings particularly with a Republican House of Representatives full of anti-regulatory zealots, are as staged as a Broadway musical, and about as relevant as one to the business of good government. The chairman likely had no intention of being respectful to Dr. Michaels – he was there to slap around an undersecretary of Labor that day. We probably needed less of the epidemiologist there and more of the bureaucrat – the proceedings went quickly downhill from the very first question, but there was probably a stronger answer that could have been given to it – such as, “while I couldn’t put hard numbers to it, I’m sure there are a considerable number of employers who are committed to protecting the health and safety of their employees – they are the ones who are participating in VPP.” It would have been a bit snarky perhaps, but again this kind of verbal fencing is about point scoring and not about a policy-maker trying to get some meaningful information about occupational health and safety regulations.

  3. #3 Jason B
    March 21, 2011

    @Samantha

    Not all employers are out just to make a buck. I believe many more good employers exist than bad ones. The bad ones are usually the only ones we see covered in the media.

    An employer raises 50k for the local untied way campaign. Another employer down the road had a fatality. Who do you think gets the headline?

    Good employers exist. I currently work for one. If I didn’t truly believe that, I would find a another employer to work for. I don’t care how “bad” the economy is, my health and well-being will not be sacrificed for anyone.

  4. #4 Liz
    March 21, 2011

    I’m not primarily concerned about whether employers “care passionately and deeply about the well-being of their employees.” Many do, and I’m glad they do. But the key thing is that employers need to *obey the law,* including the general duty clause.

    Caring deeply about one’s employees and fulfilling one’s obligation to provide a workplace free of recognized hazards aren’t synonymous, although there’s probably a lot of overlap. An employer might care deeply about his or her workers but fail to, say, provide safety harnesses because the workers have been doing fine without them for years. When one of this employer’s workers falls from a ten-story building, the end result will still be a dead worker.

  5. #5 safemba
    March 21, 2011

    Once again our tax dollars wasted on an incompetent government. The hearings are a waste of time and money.
    Get rid off all of them. They are useless to society and spending our money on BS.

  6. #6 v-boom
    March 22, 2011

    Call me overly cynical, but these hearings particularly with a Republican House of Representatives full of anti-regulatory zealots, are as staged as a Broadway musical, and about as relevant as one to the business of good government. The chairman likely had no intention of being respectful to Dr. Michaels – he was there to slap around an undersecretary of Labor that day. We probably needed less of the epidemiologist there and more of the bureaucrat – the proceedings went quickly downhill from the very first question, but there was probably a stronger answer that could have been given to it – such as, “while I couldn’t put hard numbers to it, I’m sure there are a considerable number of employers who are committed to protecting the health and safety of their employees – they are the ones who are participating in VPP.” It would have been a bit snarky perhaps, but again this kind of verbal fencing is about point scoring and not about a policy-maker trying to get some meaningful information about occupational health and safety regulations.

  7. #7 Anonymous
    March 28, 2011

    True or false: Vast majority of bureaucrats care deeply and passionately about their constituents.

  8. #8 Anonymous 2
    March 29, 2011

    Dr. Monforton,

    Have you not attended the other hearings where the former chief of advocacy for the SBA, attorney for the US Chamber, Stu Sessions of Envrionomics, and once Tammy Miser telling her heart breaking story was present? Yes it was terrible the tragedies that have taken place in the US across the years, and continuing. Unfortunately, regulations and costs to businesses do not make the world safer. In previous hearings Rep. George Miller has interrupted witnesses before they had the chance to answer a question and steamrolled his own political agenda by making the Republican witnesses look bad. This happens daily yet why did you choose to highlight the fact that Dr. Michaels had a lackluster response to a question…”I think businesses care about their employees, but I have no proof” this is a slap in the face to all employers across the country.

  9. #9 Celeste Monforton
    March 29, 2011

    Dear Anonymous 2,
    I respectfully disagree that regulations do not make the world safer. Regulations (that the auto industry fought for decades on airbags) have dramatically reduced motor vehicle fatalities. MSHA regulations requiring coal mine ventilation plans, have dramatically reduce coal mine explosions. OSHA regulations on tractor roll-over protection systems, have saved lives. These regulations do make the world safer.

    I don’t disagree that other Members of Congress are rude and interrupt witnesses. I don’t like it when Republicans do it or Democrats do it. Dr. Michaels’ response might have been lackluster. If I’d been in his shoes, I would have said, “I do indeed believe that some employers care MORE about profit and the bottom line than the lives and health of their employees. Examples include: Imperial Sugar (14 dead), ConAgra (4 dead), Massey Energy (29 dead), etc. etc.” But that’s why I’d never be appointed to that job—-the truth isn’t always politically correct.

  10. #10 Anonymous 2
    March 30, 2011

    Dr. Monforton,

    Thank you for your response, I agree that regulations do make the world safer only if employers choose to follow them, and the manufacturers engineer products to protect the end-users; as is the case in the examples that you have provided!

    I would definitely not want to be in Dr. Michaels shoes in that testimony either, curious to see how the budget will impact OSHA’s enforcement activities and future rulemakaing initiatives, keep us posted.

  11. #11 Michael Wood
    March 30, 2011

    Whatever else may be said, when a trained epidemiologist says he believes something but can’t prove it, is isn’t a lackluster response. It’s an honest one. Do I believe Oregon OSHA’s consultations are effective in reducing the risk of injuries and illnesses? Absolutely. But the proof is a bit thin (basically because it’s a complex analytical tool). Do I believe that the Oregon Safety Committee rule reduces injuries and illnesses. Yes. I wish I could prove it with any sort of certainty.

    There are all sorts of issues where I have to act on my beliefs while I pursue better data. Acknowledging that lack of certainty isn’t lackluster.

    Should Dr. Michaels have said, “Yes, I believe that. And I have seen studies that prove it”?

    And to the question by “anonymous:” Do the vast majority of bureaucrats care deeply and passionately about their constituents? Well, I think so. I know I do. I happen to know Dr. Michaels does. But the majority? I don’t have evidence. But I certainly don’t have evidence they don’t, either.

    Michael Wood
    Administrator, Oregon OSHA

  12. #12 Celeste Monforton
    March 31, 2011

    Michael,
    As always, very well sad.

  13. #13 Anonymous
    April 8, 2011

    “But the majority? I don’t have evidence. But I certainly don’t have evidence they don’t, either.”

    Well, we can certainly perform a thought experiment: for example, were I in need of assistance, I would first turn to friends and family and then to whom next: my employer or a bureaucrat? Who has more investment in my personal well-being?

  14. #14 Michael Wood
    April 11, 2011

    Anonymous,

    You make your point well. But your “thought experiment” compares the known employer with the unknown “bureaucrat.” In most cases, the known will indeed be a better choice. Except when it isn’t. And it depends upon the type of help you want. The simple (and perhaps sad) reality is that a whole lot of workers find themselves coming to bureaucrats every day because they don’t believe they can rely upon their employers. . . . or in some cases even trust them not to retaliate.

    The whole problem with the original question is that it insists that regulators believe that the reason we exist is because we don’t think the “vast majority” of employers care about their workers. But that’s a false dilemma. My point is that I don’t have to paint most employers as uncaring in order to believe my job has value. And neither does the head of federal OSHA, no matter how his answer was portrayed.

  15. #15 Anonymous
    April 11, 2011

    “You make your point well. But your “thought experiment” compares the known employer with the unknown “bureaucrat.” In most cases, the known will indeed be a better choice.”

    That is actually the point. To my employer, I’m the guy putting his kids through college. To the folks at OSHA, I’m a statistic.

    “My point is that I don’t have to paint most employers as uncaring in order to believe my job has value.”

    I agree that it’s a false premise. Likewise, no one expects you, or anyone at OSHA, to do your job because you “care”; we expect you to do your jobs regardless.