Republicans Propose Unconscionable Cuts for OSHA

by Thomas McGarity

February 14, 2011

On March 23, 2005, the worst industrial accident in 15 years killed 15 workers and injured more than 180 others as highly flammable liquids from a distillation tower were vented directly to the ground and were ignited by a spark at the huge BP Corporation Refinery in Texas City, Texas. A two-year investigation by the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSHIB) concluded that the BP Texas City refinery was “an extremely dangerous workplace by any objective standard.” An “Independent Review Panel” that BP assembled to investigate the explosion and BP’s safety practices throughout all of its operations issued a similarly devastating critique. 

The CSHIB also found that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) had acted irresponsibly. The facility was subject to OSHA’s 1992 process safety management standard, but plant managers had failed to implement many of its requirements.  The standard itself was out of date, but, lacking the resources to update it, the agency substituted ineffective guidance documents and voluntary outreach programs.  Even though the BP plant was the third largest refinery in the United States, OSHA had never undertaken a comprehensive, planned process safety inspection at the facility. Indeed, between 1995 and 2005, the agency had undertaken only nine process safety inspections in the entire country, and none of those were at refineries.

The problem was by no means limited to the BP plant. Similar explosions had killed or seriously injured workers at five other refineries and chemical plants during the preceding seven years, but OSHA had lacked the resources to step up its enforcement efforts.

Indeed, for most of its 40-plus years, OSHA has lacked sufficient resources to protect American workers from irresponsible employers who all too often treat their employees as expendable pieces of equipment.

Ever since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, OSHA has been the favorite target for Republican budget cutters.  During the Gerald R. Ford Administration, an OSHA staff of 2,405 was responsible for protecting 67.8 million workers at almost 4 million workplaces. In 2007, 2,208 staffers were responsible for 131.5 million workers at 8.5 million establishments. OSHA’s enforcement resources are so limited that only about one percent of the nation’s workplaces can be inspected in any given year.

During the last two budget cycles, OSHA’s budget began to trend upward, as Congress reacted to preventable tragedies like the BP Refinery explosion, the February 2008 explosion at the Dixie Crystal sugar refinery in Port Wentworth, Georgia that killed 14 workers and severely burned 10 more, and the huge construction cranes that toppled in New York City and Houston killing a total of 10 workers and one bystander in March and May, 2008. 

Although the increases were more than justified by those dramatic incidents, they also helped the agency address the quietly mounting death toll in preventable workplace accidents that do not make the headlines, as well as silent killers like diacetyl (which causes deadly “popcorn lung”), hexavalent chromium, and dozens of other carcinogens to which hundreds of workers are exposed on a daily basis.

Today, the Obama Administration has continued this commendable upward trend by recommending a small, but significant 4.3 percent increase in OSHA’s budget for fiscal year (FY) 2012. 

That is, of course, not the end of the matter.

Now that the Republicans are once again in control of the House of Representatives, they proposed on Friday to cut OSHA’s current budget (for the remainder of FY 2011) by a total of $99 million -- almost 20 percent -- below the FY 2010 allocated levels. They undoubtedly have even deeper cuts in mind for the 2012 FY budget. 

Having forced President Obama to support an extension of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, the Republicans are busily implementing David Stockman’s famous “trojan horse” strategy of reducing governmental restrictions on the business community by starving the agencies responsible for imposing them. 

Such draconian cuts would not just slow the agency down; they would halt it in its tracks.  No doubt many of the Republicans who are supporting the budget cuts would like nothing more than to see OSHA go out of business. But they know that the American public would not stand for that. So they are attempting to bring about the same result indirectly through the less transparent budget process.

President Obama should make it clear beyond cavil to the Republican budget cutters that he will not sign an appropriations bill that contains cuts for OSHA that come anywhere close to the amounts that the Republicans have just put on the table. And he should treat today’s budget proposal as a final line in the sand, and not a bargaining chip to be sacrificed as the Republicans press for additional cuts in the agency’s FY 2012 budget.

When the Republicans attempted to use the budget process to advance a radical deregulatory agenda during Newt Gingrich’s 104th Congress, President Clinton faced them down. It took two government shutdowns, during which Americans witnessed firsthand what it was like to live in the government-free world that Gingrich and his colleagues Dick Armey and Tom Delay so badly wanted to bring about. But the Republicans ultimately backed down in response to the strong public reaction against their reckless tactics. 

President Obama must now demonstrate the same grim determination that President Clinton displayed in late 1995. He must dare the Republican leaders to shut down the government in a public showdown, rather than tolerate their renewed efforts to kill it quietly through a thousand budget cuts.

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Thomas O. McGarity holds the Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Endowed Chair in Administrative Law at the University of Texas in Austin. He is a member of the board of directors of the Center for Progressive Reform, and a past president of the organization.

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