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May 2, 2017

Next Agency To Be Put On A Leash: OSHA

  Investor's Business Daily

President Trump has made cutting regulations and downsizing overreaching federal agencies a priority. The Environmental Protection Agency and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau are just two of the most in need of reform.

Well, here's another for the list: the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, whose rule-making often wreaks havoc on businesses.

President Nixon signed into law the Occupational Safety and Health Act in 1970 in order to "assure so far as possible every working man and woman in the nation safe and healthful working conditions."

Actually, make that private-sector working men and women. As is so often the case, Congress exempted government workers from the law, though some state and local governments have adopted it.

OSHA defenders say the agency has made major progress toward achieving the initial goal. For example, workplace fatalities have fallen from about 18 per 100,000 full-time equivalent (FTE) workers in 1970 when the law passed to a mere 3.4 in 2015.

Impressive, except as the Mercatus Center at George Mason University has pointed out, workplace fatalities had been falling steadily for decades before the passage of OSHA, from a high of about 44 per 100,000 FTEs in 1937.

Part of that decline can be attributed not to OSHA rules but the changing nature of the U.S. workforce. For example, manufacturing jobs peaked in 1979 at about 19.5 million, declining to about 12.3 million today. Factories have become safer, but there are also fewer people in them.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2015, out of 4,836 total workplace fatalities there were 722 classified as "contacts with objects and equipment," 703 from "violence and other injuries by persons or animals, and 424 from "exposures to harmful substances or environments."

In other words, an employee is about 65% more likely to be harmed on the job by a fellow worker than a dangerous substance. But that hasn't stopped OSHA from regulatory overreach.

So in December, House Republican members of the Freedom Caucus identified three recent OSHA rules they wanted to claw back.  One is the OSHA Silica Rule intended to limit worker exposure to crystalline silica.

OSHA estimates that the rule, when fully implemented, would save more than 600 lives each year, which would be remarkable given that the BLS claims there were only 424 workplace fatalities due to exposure to harmful substances in all of 2015.  Oh, and OSHA modestly claims that Silica Final Rule will provide net annual benefits of about $7.7 billion.

In another last-minute rule issued in January, OSHA sought to limit worker exposure to a beryllium alloy, but then decided to expand the ruling to trace amounts of beryllium found in blasting materials used in Texas and other shipyards around the country, even though the alloy contains 20,000 times the level found in abrasive blasting material.

The chairman of the Subcommittee on Workforce Protections, Bradley Byrne, recently sent a letter to the Trump administration seeking a rollback of the expanded regulation.

At least in this instance OSHA was a little more restrained in its claims, asserting the rule will save about 96 lives a year and provide net annual benefits of $575.8 million.

It needs to be pointed out that no one quite knows how OSHA comes up with these huge economic-benefit estimates.  And even fewer people believe them because the benefits are manufactured to justify OSHA's overreach. The EPA was doing exactly the same thing.

The Republican-led Congress appears willing to rein in OSHA. A few years ago Republicans tried to convince the Department of Labor to rescind OSHA's decision to abandon its long-standing practice of exempting labor rules on farms with fewer than 10 employees. The agency's action resulted in thousands of dollars in fines on small family farms.

And the Washington Post reports that in March the Senate voted to eliminate the Fair Play and Safe Workplaces rule, which a court had already blocked from implementation.

Fortunately, there's a new sheriff in town. Former Labor Secretary Tom Perez is gone and Alexander Acosta has taken his place. As with so many other federal agencies, when confirmed Acosta needs to take a long hard look at OSHA practices, including the silica and beryllium rules.

The workplace has changed dramatically since OSHA was created in 1970, and employees are safer than ever.  The new secretary needs to limit OSHA to real threats, not manufactured ones it uses to justify its existence.


 

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