Eight years ago the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration promised to come to grips with the safety problems at grain elevators, which can explode when grain dust is accidentally ignited.
Not until last year did OSHA make good on its promise. Even then, the agency exempted grain and flour mills from the new regulations and required employers to regulate the buildup of grain dust only in certain parts of a grain elevator.No wonder OSHA is under fire not only from the usual outside critics, but also from some of its own employees. Among the charges leveled against OSHA by such insiders during recent congressional hearings are these disturbing accusations:
OSHA has been extraordinarily slow in issuing safety standards, often taking years to issue a final rule. Even then, many of the safety standards are completed only in response to a court order.
OSHA compliance officers, responsible for on-site inspections, have been pressured to meet artificial agency quotas for the number of inspections they conduct.
Such accusations are easy to prove. For example, since 1976, OSHA has issued only 47 final rules, including those covering such cancer-causers as asbestos, benzene, and formaldehyde. Twenty of those rules were published in just the last three years, including four under court order.
But OSHA isn't entirely to blame for its shortcomings. Congress has given the agency a budget that amounts to only $4 for each of the 60 million workers whose health and safety OSHA is supposed to safeguard.
Moreover, one reason OSHA acts so slowly is that the agency must undergo so much second-guessing. At every stage, a proposed OSHA rule is subject to review by both the Department of Labor and the Office of Management and Budget.
Though Congress is aware of OSHA's shortcomings and some of the reasons for them, no legislation has been drafted to overcome the agency's problems. After the election campaign is over, such reforms ought to be among the lawmakers' first priorities.