Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Bush Administration Still Hates OSHA!

The final report on the Texas City refinery explosion that killed 15 people and injured 170 pointed its finger squarely at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the government arm responsible for worker safety. The Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board issued its final report on the incident just months after former Sec. of State James Baker’s independent review panel report.

Both studies hammered BP’s poor management, cost cutting and inadequate safety practices. However the CSHIB cited OSHA’s failure to do its job of protecting workers. Ironically it gave the Bush administration a free pass on its gutting of OSHA regulations over the last 6 years. Despite numerous accidents resulting in death, the Texas City refinery only had one comprehensive process management inspection the last 30 years, in 1998. The report cited OSHA’s inspection orientation toward businesses with multiple accidents and high injury rates as ignoring those with infrequent but catastrophic potential.

Left out of the report is the Bush administrations role in changing OSHA’s focus. The Washington Post did a piece “Bush Forces a Shift in Regulatory Thurst: OSHA Made More Business Friendly”.

A relatively small part of the department for three decades, OSHA has the large mission of sifting through research on potential hazards to workers and deciding when the government should step in. It writes federal standards, conducts inspections to determine whether employers follow them and metes out punishment when they do not.

Bush offered the job of running OSHA to a career-long industrial hygienist from St. Louis who was a virtual stranger to Washington.

John L. Henshaw had worked for two decades at Monsanto Co., a giant manufacturer of agricultural chemicals. Most recently, he had been the director of environment, safety and health at Astaris LLC, another chemical company.

Even though he had come from industry, Henshaw was viewed by the administration's critics as a more palatable choice than they had expected. "He's a competent, well-regarded safety and health professional," Peg Seminario, the longtime occupational safety and health director of the AFL-CIO, the umbrella labor organization, said at the time.

During his first days in Washington, Henshaw made it clear that he would carry out a directive from Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao instructing the entire department to comb through the regulatory work Clinton's aides had left unfinished and find items to eliminate.

"In the past, the business community worked to develop regulations that were acceptable," said Patrick R. Tyson, an Atlanta lawyer representing corporations in occupational safety matters who held senior positions at OSHA in the 1970s and '80s. "But now the game has changed, and the business community feels like they can kill any regulation they want."

The overall number of inspections has increased under Bush, but the typical inspection takes less time, and fewer are in response to accidents or complaints. OSHA officials say they are more trusting now of industries with good safety records, while putting greater emphasis on those -- such as construction -- where workers are most prone to injury. Union leaders said that inflates an appearance of vigilance, because OSHA counts each subcontractor at a construction site as a separate inspection.

With its current staff, Henshaw said, OSHA can visit about 2 percent of the nation's workplaces each year. Given those limits, he said, it has made sense to strengthen the agency's relationships with businesses, encouraging voluntary compliance.

To do so, OSHA has created a new kind of voluntary program, intended to foster "trusting, cooperative relationships" between the government and groups of industries and professional societies, according to an agency fact sheet. These new alliances, as they are known, depart from a central tradition throughout the agency's history: They are allowed to exclude labor unions.

As for the new alliances, one OSHA administrator, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that some employers might be too uncomfortable to participate if unions were there.

There has been a huge ground shift in OSHA under the Bush administration. What role did this play in the CSIHB’s findings? Would voluntary compliance with worker safety rules ever have changed BP’s sorry practices? No, it took a huge accident and two investigations to result in change. The independent panel focused on how BP would change to do better safety wise in the future while the government one pointed its fingers at a sister organization.

Someone wants the private sector to look good and the halls of government to look like a dufus. Yet, in both cases it goes back to leadership. BP got a horrific accident for its poor leadership and OSHA’s performance is a direct reflection of the Bush administration’s inept management practices.

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