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.’”
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.”
“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.
“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.