February 3, 2011 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 4Comment

The contrast is striking. Look at the screenshot of the outcome of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs’ (OIRA) review of two Labor Department rules to address flaws in our worker health and safety system. One is a proposal by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) to crack down on mine operators who habitually violate mine safety regulations. No more warning letters or slaps on the wrist. Once a mine operator is notified he has a “pattern of violations,” a single serious violation of the law observed by an inspector at any time in the next 90 days will result in workers being withdrawn from the mine. That’s tough enforcement. OIRA approved this proposal in about 30 days.

Compare this aggressive MSHA plan to a far less ambitious proposal from OSHA which has now been suspended by OIRA the Labor Department. For more than a year, OSHA has been working on a proposal to get better data on work-related musculoskeletal disorders like tendinitis, low back pain, carpet layers knee, trigger finger, and carpal tunnel syndrome. OSHA proposed a simple revision to its paper form—called the OSHA 300 log—on which less than 20% of U.S. employers are required to record work-related injuries. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) collects a sample of these forms annually to estimate national rates of work-related injuries. OSHA doesn’t even get a set of the raw data.

The proposal would not have changed existing requirements for when or under what circumstances employers record injuries or illness on the logs. The only modification was that employers would place a check mark in a column on the log to indicate a musculoskeletal disorders. The rule languished at OIRA unnecessarily for more than six months, giving industry lobbyists plenty of time to rally troops against it. It was not any sweeping reform to compel employers fix hazards that contribute to injuries, or anything approaching MSHA’s plan to shut down worksites with patterns of violations. Nope. Just put a check mark in a column on a form you are already required to fill out.

The reason the Administration backed down?

Among others, the Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers and other business groups despised the idea. They said so at OSHA’s public meeting on the proposal, and in private meetings with the White House. It also fell nicely in line with the Administration’s announcement just a couple of weeks ago: regulations should not put unreasonable burdens on businesses.

Opponents loathed the OSHA proposal so much that they managed to convince Administration officials that a check mark, a CHECK MARK, is an unreasonable burden.
But, it’s not really about the check mark is it?

Imagine what might happen if workers, public health agencies or researchers had better data on work-related musculoskeletal disorders? We might learn something about the magnitude of the problem and the industries in which workers face the greatest risk of injury. With that information, employers might be forced to do something to prevent them. But without more data, we remain in the dark about incidence and prevalence trends for these injuries. Better yet, we can forego making decisions to address them. That’s exactly what the businesses and their lobbyists want.

As Peg Seminario said in a Washington Post article about OSHA’s decision to temporarily withdraw the idea of revising the log:

“We’re angry and we’re disappointed by this. If the administration is going to respond to something that should have been a small deal, we’re quite concerned about what this might mean for things that have a broad impact.”

Why the disparity between protections for mine workers versus most other workers? One reason is….data. Yep, data. The kind of data that would be available with this change to the OSHA 300 log. Look at the inspection data available on MSHA’s website for every mine in the country. Look at the information on MSHA’s website about every mining fatality. Look at the type and frequency of data that employers in the mining industry submit to MSHA (here, here, here, etc.) The more we know about who, how and where miners are killed or injured, the better able we are to prevent harm from occurring. Sometimes the answer is a new regulation; more often it’s a different solution.

I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the death of worker in a mine gets more attention than a worker on a construction site or a drilling rig. Available data doesn’t explain it all, but it’s part of the reason. When the data is collected and made available, the better the chance that someone will examine it and publicize what they find. A reporter, a commentator, a lawmaker, can easily click through MSHA’s website and see how the mine stacks up against others on injuries, citations, penalties assessed and even whether they’ve been paid. That’s the lay of the land for employers in the mining industry.

Employers in all those other industries—residential and heavy construction, light manufacturing, meatpacking, oil and gas extraction, hospitality, healthcare, etc.—they want none of that. They don’t want to distinguish work-related musculoskeletal disorders from other injuries. They don’t want policymakers or the public to know if workers in their industries are at risk. They don’t want data collected to inform public health decisions.

The Administration is letting them have their way….at least for now.

4 thoughts on “Labor Dept forges ahead to strengthen mine safety, but steps back on other worker health and safety rule

  1. Thank you very much for this interesting (albeit upsetting!) read! i wonder why there is such a different approach between the MSHA and OSHA…. why are the employer of miners not against having detailed data available to anyone while for other professions a simple check is such a big deal?

  2. thanks for your reply. i read the reason, but i still don’t understand why the mine employers don’t mind having detailed data and the others do. just wondering….

  3. It isn’t that the mine owners don’t mind the record keeping, it’s just that historically they have been able to get away with ignoring the results of inspections and not paying the fines. It doesn’t matter how much data you have if nothing happens as a result. The ability to shut down and mine for non-compliance is a new and wonderful idea. As far as non-mine businesses hating making a check mark, they hate ANY regulation even one that would make them money such as the (short lived) ergonomics standard.

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