Each year, thousands of working men and women die on the job. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4,609 workers in 2011 did not return home from a day’s work (2012 data will be available later this year). On April 28, we observe Workers Memorial Day to remember those who have suffered and died on the job and to renew our efforts for safe workplaces. This year, the struggle continues as members of Congress have jeopardized Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) funding with the so-called “sequester” budget cuts.
The resources that have been appropriated to OSHA are not only to enforce rules and regulations, but also to provide training for workers and returning military personnel, fund research and create new regulations. Sadly, OSHA’s tight budget inhibits its ability to carry out its mission.
The latest economic reports from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that more than 143 million workers are employed in the United States. Yet, OSHA’s budget for Fiscal Year 2012 was $583 million — a paltry 4 dollars per American worker to ensure safety and health on the job.
What’s even more shocking is OSHA’s inability to levy significant fines on employers who have broken the law. The Occupational Safety and Health Act limits the fines that OSHA can charge negligent employers to a maximum of $7,000 per safety violation deemed “serious,” even if the violations resulted in a worker death. The threshold for fines is in dire need of modernization.
It’s time for our country to fulfill the promise of safe jobs for all and to hold employers accountable for their actions. As it stands today, OSHA fines are so low that employers can disregard them as just another cost of doing business. In fact, the tragedy in West, Texas may have been a direct result of a miniscule OSHA fine.
OSHA’s funding should be increased so that the agency has the resources to conduct thorough and routine inspections of plants containing dangerous and volatile substances. In addition, the fines against workplaces where employees are killed should be significantly raised so that businesses have an increased financial incentive to ensure their workplaces are safe.
Keith Wrightson is Public Citizen’s worker safety and health advocate. Keep up with Public Citizen’s work on these issues by following @SafeWorkers on Twitter.