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To the editor: Your recent editorials arguing for legislative reform of OSHA and against an ergonomics standard for American workers not only miss the mark but completely elude the range (BI, Dec. 16, 1996; Dec. 9, 1996).
Over the past 25 years under OSHA, the occupational death rate in the United States has been halved. If that's not a workplace improvement, I don't know what is. One study found 22% fewer injuries at companies where OSHA cited violations during the three years following an inspection, demonstrating a direct correlation between OSHA activity and improved workplace safety and health.
Employers that follow OSHA recommendations can save money, too. Boise Cascade Corp. in Rumford, Maine, paid OSHA penalties of more than $750,000 following a 1989 inspection that turned up nearly 3,000 violations. Bad news? Perhaps, but the company's new safety and health program instituted following that inspection cut serious injuries to zero and minor injuries by half, reducing workers compensation costs by 97% over five years.
We appreciate Business Insurance's support for our January ergonomics conference. It will showcase best practices among companies and industries that have been successful in improving the fit between workers and their jobs, resulting in fewer injuries and lower costs. Repetitive stress injuries cost employers more than $20 billion in direct costs and an additional $100 billion in indirect costs each year. And that does not even take into account the related human suffering.
OSHA has no intention of issuing a "one-size-fits-all" ergonomics proposal. We intend to develop a strong, scientific standard that empowers employers to adopt protective measures appropriate to their worksite. While we continue to work on the direction this standard will take, one approach is clear: We will focus on specific problems with identifiable solutions. This targeted approach makes good sense for employers and employees alike.
Regarding OSHA reform, bills from the last Congress appear to put OSHA reinvention efforts into law, but in reality, they are full of pitfalls that actually reduce worker protection and limit OSHA's flexibility to develop successful partnership alternatives to traditional inspections and penalties.
We will continue such innovative programs as OSHA's new complaint policy, handling many complaints by phone and fax. We are expanding our new cooperative compliance programs, encouraging participating employers to find and fix hazards on their own. A new penalty policy that is now being tested could cut penalties by up to 100% for companies with effective safety and health programs.
Any OSHA reform legislation should build on, rather than ignore, the successes of the past 25 years to enable the agency to do an even better job of improving safety and health for American workers.
Joseph A. Dear
Assistant Secretary for
Occupational Safety and Health
U.S. Department of Labor
Mr. Dear left his post at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration Jan. 10 to become chief of staff to Washington Gov.-elect Gary Locke.