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The nation made a promise to its working men and women more than two decades ago when it adopted the Occupational Safety and Health Act.

The promise of OSHA was to bring about safe and healthy working conditions for all American workers and to reduce the threat of death, illness and danger in the country's 6 million workplaces.But that pledge hasn't been kept.

Too many Americans continue to die or face crippling injuries and illnesses on the job. Every five seconds another worker is killed, injured or made sick by job hazards - more than 7 million workers each year. The cost of these injuries is enormous, more than $116 billion in 1992, according to the National Safety Council.

The human faces behind these statistics could be clearly seen this past April 28, the 23rd anniversary of OSHA, when workers and family members came to Washington, bringing their stories and a call for action to the Clinton administration and Congress.

Kathy Mitchell, a truck driver at a non-union concrete plant in Escondido, Calif., was among them. She had planned to enter the state highway patrol academy, but now uses a wheelchair after the cab of her truck was filled with concrete powder, permanently damaging her lungs.

No safety training was conducted, and when she was injured, she recalled, "no one knew what to do. They should know what to do."

Legislation now before Congress - the Comprehensive Occupational Safety and Health Reform Act - would improve safety and health protections and build on existing OSHA programs.

First, OSHA reform calls for workplace committees, with representatives from workers and management, to inspect for hazards, investigate accidents and make recommendations for action. These committees, set up properly, will fortify the current OSHA enforcement program that now just can't do the job.

Today there are fewer than 2,000 federal and state inspectors overseeing job safety and health at the nation's 6 million workplaces. Federal OSHA can inspect a workplace on average once every 87 years.

OSHA reform also means an end to the second-class status of public employees, by extending coverage to some 7 million workers who now are excluded from the law. With a fatality rate of three times that of manufacturing workers, public sector workers clearly need better job safety protections.

Provisions calling for safety and health programs and worker training would put in place measures to recognize and correct hazards before they occur.

In Oregon, injury and fatality rates have dropped by 10 percent since safety and health committee requirements were enacted in 1990, saving employers more than $1 billion in workers' compensation costs.

A Department of Labor study of the federal OSHA reform bill projects that the legislation will reduce injury rates significantly and result in cost savings to employers of $7 billion a year.

After 23 years, it's time for the Congress to enact a new workplace safety law. For America's workers, OSHA reform truly is a matter of life and death.