Why Not Turn OSHA Into Partner of Industry?

September 03, 1995|By MARK WILSON

America's labor law needs reform. After Labor Day, Congress will begin debating proposals to improve the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and merge it with the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA).

The goal of these reforms is to redefine the role of the federal government in workplace health and safety from that of heavy-handed regulator to one of cooperative partner. Over the past 25 years, the federal government has been increasingly perceived as more concerned with maintaining bureaucracies and filling out paperwork than with working cooperatively with business to make workplaces safer. Federal workplace health and safety laws should be reformed to leverage the strong incentives that businesses already have to improve and maintain work-site health and safety.

Merging MSHA with a reformed OSHA is a sensible first step toward improving workplace health and safety, limiting unnecessary government intervention, and reducing inefficient, wasteful government spending. The effectiveness of these agencies in carrying out their missions is questionable. From rule-making to enforcement, the regulatory nightmare businesses face has made OSHA inspectors as feared as IRS auditors.

Although most employers maintain relatively safe and healthy workplaces, OSHA maintains an adversarial approach to setting and enforcing standards. Consequently, many employers are reluctant to call OSHA for compliance assistance for fear of triggering punitive inspections. Further, the legal requirement that every mine be inspected four times a year makes it virtually impossible for MSHA to target enforcement resources where they are needed most: mines with poor safety records. Excessive burdens on businesses and job creation can be reduced while improving workplace health and safety.

Congress should significantly reform OSHA's regulatory process. OSHA's bureaucratic culture and lawyers have abandoned common sense in search for completely risk-free workplaces and the ability to prosecute successfully. Instead, OSHA should take aim at the hazards that pose the greatest risk to the most workers. Developing safety and health rules should involve prioritizing hazards and risks, and calculating the costs and benefits of its regulations after five years.

The development of compliance directives should also be made part of the rule-making process and tied directly to economic analysis. Far too often, compliance directives are more burdensome than the rules themselves.

OSHA's primary mission should be to assist employers with compliance. Translating OSHA's confusing jumble of regulations into safer workplaces is difficult at best. Most employers want safe and healthy workplaces if OSHA will just tell them how. Unfortunately, the Department of Labor is more concerned with prosecuting employers than with providing accurate, reliable compliance information. Businesses have much stronger financial incentives than OSHA penalties to maintain and continually improve the safety of their workplaces. Explicitly redefining OSHA's mission toward compliance assistance will leverage employers' desire for safety and dramatically improve workplace safety and health.

OSHA inspectors should be required to have some expertise in the industry they are inspecting. Inspectors are routinely called upon to inspect a variety of workplaces, many of which, like mining, involve complex operations. Employers and employees deserve to have their workplaces inspected by qualified persons.

Merging MSHA with a reformed OSHA and reallocating federal resources will accomplish two important objectives: It will eliminate administrative overhead and duplicative costs, and increase health and safety in all industries.

Reforming the Mine Act to require only one inspection per year will enable MSHA to shift its inspection resources from mine operators with exemplary safety records to operators with poor safety records. By focusing on the "bad players," OSHA's new Mine Office would not reduce workplace health and safety. No MSHA safety or health regulations would be abolished. Each underground mine would be thoroughly inspected at least once a year by qualified inspectors, and all workers would be able to request federal inspections if employers ignored their concerns about unsafe conditions. MSHA's imminent danger closure rule would be maintained, and mine workers be covered by OSHA's health regulations.

Common-sense regulations and compliance assistance, combined with competitive market pressures to increase productivity, keep skilled workers, and minimize legal and insurance costs, will do more to increase workplace health and safety than any army of government inspectors and lawyers. Reforming OSHA and consolidating it with MSHA is a win-win for hard-working American taxpayers. American workers and taxpayers will get healthier, safer workplaces at lower cost.

Mark Wilson is a Rebecca Lukens Fellow in Labor Policy at the Heritage Foundation.

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