Senate Lends Ear to Workplace Safety Failures

Businesses in the United States are ignoring obligations to protect workers on the job and are cutting costs at the expense of employee safety, according to testimony heard Tuesday by a U.S. Senate subcommittee.

At issue was the effectiveness of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a federal regulator of workplace safety laws.The Senate Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety held the hearing, titled “Serious OSHA Violations: Strategies for Breaking Dangerous Patterns,” in an effort to understand workplace safety failures in the wake of various industry disasters.

It was a grim subject for April Fools’ day as individuals testified to a slew of workplace violations that ended in fatalities.

In March 2005, 15 employees were killed in an explosion at a BP oil storge facility in Texas. The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, an independent federal agency that investigates industrial chemical accidents, later found that BP failed to address hazards even while participating in cost-cutting that impaired safety at the Texas plant.

Approximately 10 months later, 12 miners were killed in the Sago Mine disaster in West Virginia; it was later found that the mine had been cited more than 200 times by federal regulators in 2005.

On the local level, Colorado recently witnessed the deaths of five workers in a chemical fire at Georgetown in October 2007. OSHA proposed more than $1 million in fines against Xcel Energy and one of the business’s contractors in March, calling the accident preventable.

“OSHA has repeatedly failed in its 37-year history to protect workers,” said Eric Frumin, a health and safety coordinator for the union group Change to Win who testified at the hearing and claimed that the federal agency’s lack of resources has impaired its ability to complete its mission. “In far too many cases, inspectors arrive only after a serious incident or years of neglect, where earlier intervention would have saved lives.”

Jerry Scannell, who served as director of safety and health standards for OSHA when the agency was established in the early 1970s, said that there is a disconnect between upper-management figures in regard to safety issues.

“Back in the early ’90s I talked to CEOs  of companies who were involved in catastrophic explosions. One common denominator in several explosions was a breakdown in vertical communications. Almost every CEO said, ‘No one ever told me we were at risk,'” Scannell said. “The communications stopped at the mid-executive level.”

OSHA currently maintains more than 2,100 full-time employees, according to budget documents. No officials from the agency testified at the hearing.

Erin Rosa was born in Spain and raised in Colorado Springs. She is a freelance writer currently living in Denver. Rosa's work has been featured in a variety of news outlets including the Huffington Post, Democracy Now!, and the Rocky Mountain Chronicle, an alternative-weekly in Northern Colorado where she worked as a columnist covering the state legislature. Rosa has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for her reporting on lobbying and woman's health issues. She was also tapped with a rare honorable mention award by the Newspaper Guild-CWA's David S. Barr Award in 2008--only the second such honor conferred in its nine-year history--for her investigative series covering the federal government's Supermax prison in the state. Rosa covers the labor community, corrections, immigration and government transparency matters. She can be reached at

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