What is OSHA’s Role?

April 26th, 2007 by

New York Times reporter Steven Labaton presents an interesting portrait of OSHA in action. It’s a story about popcorn. Americans eat more than a billion pounds of popcorn a year. According to the industry, that’s nearly 14 gallons of popcorn for every man, woman and child in the country. Unfortunately, quite a few of the people packaging the product are coming down with a rare and potentially fatal illness. Sounds like an opportunity for OSHA, doesn’t it?
Seven years ago, a Missouri doctor discovered a pattern at a microwave popcorn plant in the town of Jasper. After an additive was modified to produce a more buttery taste, nine workers came down with a rare, life-threatening disease that was ravaging their lungs.
Puzzled Missouri health authorities turned to two federal agencies in Washington. They got two very different responses. Scientists at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), which investigates the causes of workplace health problems, moved quickly to examine patients, inspect factories and run tests. Within months, they concluded that the workers became ill after exposure to diacetyl, a food-flavoring agent. (You can find their recommendations for managing the exposure here.)
But the response at OSHA has been, well, a bit laid back. OSHA did not step up plant inspections or mandate safety standards for businesses, even as more workers became ill. OSHA Director Edwin Foulke says “the science is murky” on whether the additive causes bronchiolitis obliterans, the disease that has been called “popcorn worker’s lung.” You can find a few industry officials who agree with Mr. Foulke, but leading scientists and doctors agree with NIOSH scientists that there is compelling evidence linking the additive to the illness. (Hm, did someone mention global warming?)
In keeping with the OSHA philosophy under the Bush administration, Foulke has not issued any regulations about diacetyl – or anything else, for that matter. Instead of regulations, Mr. Foulke favors a “voluntary compliance strategy,” reaching agreements with industry associations and companies to police themselves. Let’s just sit down, munch a few artificially flavored kernels and come up with a (PR) plan.
Blame the Victim
Early in his tenure at OSHA, Mr. Foulke delivered a speech called “Adults Do the Darndest Things,” which attributed many injuries to worker carelessness. Large posters of workers’ making dangerous errors, like erecting a tall ladder close to an overhead wire, were displayed around him.
“Kids don’t always know what their parents do all day at work, but they instinctively understand the importance of them working safely,” he told the audience, which included children who had won a safety-poster contest. “In contrast, adults could stand to learn a thing or two. Looking at the posters, I was reminded of a couple examples of safety and health bloopers that are both humorous and horrible.”
Listening to Mr. Foulke, I am reminded that administrators also can do the darndest things. They are confronted with strong evidence of a problem – workers falling ill to rare and serious illness. Government scientists confirm that the illness is caused by a chemical in the workplace. So what does OSHA do? Not much.
Perhaps Foulke believes that the workers are being careless: after all, they keep on breathing in these darned factories, don’t they?
Onerous Regulations?
Historically, you can certainly make the case that some OSHA regulations have been ponderously worded, onerous, perhaps even downright silly. But even if you believe in small government, you have to understand the role your agency plays in the working world. OSHA is in charge of workplace safety. If there are unsafe working conditions, OSHA is supposed to respond. Regulations are needed: write the regs as succinctly and clearly as possible, but write them!
Mr. Foulke’s boss, Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, points out that “there are more words in the Federal Register describing OSHA regulations than there are words in the Bible. They’re a lot less inspired to read and a lot harder to understand. This is not fair.”
Ah, but workers in popcorn factories are dying because a chemical has destroyed their lungs. That’s not fair either. Ideology and the wording of regulations aside, it’s OSHA’s job to mitigate the risk. I don’t care how they do it, but they need to get the job done.