Monday, December 6, 2010

How will the Results of the Midterm Elections affect Workplace Safety?

There has been a lot of talk over the last several weeks concerning how the Republican takeover of Congress will affect OSHA’s activity over the next 2 years. Worker safety is, should, and always will be a nonpartisan issue. However, how many tax-payer dollars are given to organizations that enforce regulations of the workplace is a partisan issue, for better or worse. Since the Obama Administration began, funding for OSHA enforcement has increased, as has the number of inspectors and overall inspections. Many fear that with the continuing economic struggles of the country, a Republican Congress will not continue the pattern of increasing OSHA’s budget as the Democrats have. Even if that is the case, it shouldn’t be anything to worry about in terms of worker safety.

Workplace safety is a matter of law, but as we have pointed out in the past, it is also a matter of employer responsibility. If an accident were to occur at a facility, the blame always falls on the employer, not OSHA, as the responsible party. The reason for this can be understood quite simply by reviewing the General Duty Clause in the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. It states, “Each employer shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.” Thus, whether OSHA reduces the number of inspections they conduct or not, the employer still has a duty to ensure the safety of their workers. Decreased OSHA activity is not an excuse for decreased worker safety.

Recently, OSHA published the results of its informal survey on what chemicals should be regulated. The optional survey received a great response from employers and experts about chemicals that are not currently regulated, but should be because of their harmful effects to humans when exposed. Seeing as new information is constantly being revealed, employers have a duty to protect their workers from new threats, whether OSHA establishes a permissible exposure limit or not. Thus, education of employers about such chemicals is a key issue as well. As a government bureaucracy, OSHA moves slowly, and cannot possibly set a regulation for everything that could be potentially harmful in the workplace. Some element of responsibility needs to fall on the individual employers themselves.

The bottom line is that just because OSHA does not say an employer has to structure the workplace a certain way, establish rules to prevent employee injuries, or monitor a chemical they use, does not mean it isn’t the right thing to do, and even the lawful thing to do under the General Duty Clause. If an employer has evidence that something may cause harm to their employees, they should take the appropriate steps to prevent it.

Employee safety has nothing to do with who controls Congress.

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