April 1, 2008 The Pump Handle 3Comment

This was one of the first-class quotes from former OSHA Assistant Secretary Jerry Scannell (1989-1993) during today’s hearing on workers’ safety and health before the Senate HELP Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety.  His comment came in response to discussions about OSHA’s and the Department of Labor’s Solicitor’s Office’s practices of  reducing penalties, even in cases of serious violations.  Mr. Scannell said he often felt pressure from inside and outside the agency to settle inspection and fatality-investigation cases by using “discount factors” to reduce monetary penalties.  He recalled wondering, “What are we, a discount house?”  and avoided doing it.

Mr. Scannell reminded the Senators that early next year, they will have the opportunity to conduct confirmation hearings for the newly-elected President’s nominees for Secretary of Labor and Solicitor of Labor (SOL).  He urged the Senators to inquire about these individuals’ views and opinions about occupational health and safety regulations and enforcement programs.  As he said numerous times throughout the hearing, a commitment to workers’ health and safety begins with the CEO and then necessarily down each rung of the organization.  It follows, therefore, that a commitment to OSHA’s mission starts with the Secretary of Labor, and next stop the Solicitor of Labor.  Otherwise, forget about an effective OSHA.

The former OSHA chief stressed on at least two occassions the important role of SOL in OSHA policy and practices—a powerful role that many people don’t realize.  He noted that the Department’s attorneys are involved in regulation development, severity and monetary penalty determinations, and “discounting” of penalties.  “God love ’em” he said, but when lawyers get involved in “discounting” violations and penalties, the Assistant Secretary saw this result: “it doesn’t come out they way we wanted it to for the workers.”

THANK you Mr. Scannell for reminding us that OSHA was established for the health and safety needs of WORKERs.  Not to ease the work of government or company attorneys, not to ease the burden on companies, but for the interest of workers.

I very much appreciated Mr. Scannell saying:

“workers get blamed for a lot of things and it’s not the workers fault.”

He suggested that looking just beyond the immediate behavior of the worker, there are many other factors that likely caused that worker to take that action. 

Finally, Mr. Scannell was not as quick as many others (including the current OSHA chief Mr. Edwin Foulke) to characterize the reduction in fatality rates as a sign of success.  With the litany of dust explosions, mine disasters, crane collapses and other workplace tragedies in the news, Mr. Scannell said:

“We have a crisis in this country.  Fatalities are still pretty high and serious injuries are still high.”

Here’s a man who is clearly not proud that in the U.S.A. in 2008, at least 6,000 workers will die on-the-job, and thousands of others will die from occupational disease or suffer disabling injuries.  I’m ready to start a petition drive to bring Jerry Scannell back as the head of OSHA in the next (D) or (R) Administration!

Celeste Monforton, MPH worked at OSHA as a newly-hired GS-7 analyst when Asst. Sec. Scannell was the head of OSHA.  Now, 17 years later, she is a research associate and lecturer at the School of Public Health, George Washington University.

3 thoughts on “What are we, a discount house?

  1. What an amazing artical. It stads to reason that if OSHA preaches safety starts at the top that they would be practicing what they preach. I guess they should take a few of their own education classes.

  2. Powerful and compelling!
    Sounds like the kind of attitude that would keep the right issues on the front burner.

  3. I know it feels good to hear what appears to be some ‘straight talking’ about the current OSHA, but I’m not getting all ‘teary eyed’ about the good old days with Gerry Scannell at the helm. And I think it’s much more important to have a strong OSHA, updated regulations and expanded workers’ rights, including the right to organize a union, rather a paternalistic CEOs. (But I do believe it’s nice when they’re in the caring mood.)

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