Conceptually, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s responsibility is to ensure workers are not exposed to unsafe conditions thus allowing them to return home from work to care for their families. But in actuality, OSHA’s main task is not to affect worker behavior whatsoever. Rather, their main impact comes when they affect employer behavior that prevents worker harm.
This is why OSHA’s response to the death of 35-year old Andy Gammon, who fell while working on the new Mississippi River Bridge in St. Louis, is so concerning. After inspection, OSHA found four possible serious safety violations that may have led to the incident, only to propose a fine of $15,300 to the responsible contractors. Yes, $15,300!!!:
In the citation issued last week, OSHA officials said the man lift was “placed on a barge and used by employees without following all manufacturers’ requirements for safe use.” The Genie N80 boom lift operations manual cautions against using the machine “on a moving or mobile surface or vehicle.”
The other alleged violations include:
– Lack of safe practices and procedures for installation of pipe pilings.
– Failure to adequately protect employees installing pipe pilings from work hazards.
– Failure to train employees on the safe operation of the Genie N80 boom lift.
Procedure was bucked both for pipe work AND for operating a boom, yet the best OSHA could do was demand $15,300? This is hardly the kind of preventative medicine that should be forced down these four employers’ throats. What does this say to the Gammon family? That their loved one’s life was worth just over 15 grand?
We asked some folks who have spent their life in the labor movement what they thought of this, expecting context or a better understanding of how this could be the punishment. “I saw one for $900 once,” one sheet metal worker said. By “saw one” he meant a punishment following the death of a worker.
To be clear, a fine of, say, $25 million wouldn’t bring Andy Gammon back to life, but it would at least represent a big enough sum (and direct statement) to make employers think twice about repeating these kinds of violations.
Bold Progressives noted the irony of big business, anti-worker sentiments about “over-regulation” — they’re the boogieman destroying our economy, right? — when, in fact, it is much more likely that under-regulation is having an adverse effect:
With such a low fine attached to safety violations, it’s no wonder that businesses often routinely ignore the law when it comes to the well-being of their workers. This case is a stark reminder that under-regulation can be just as destructive as the “over-regulation” the right complains about.
The importance of OSHA’s mission cannot be understated and the hurdles to them policing this country — budgets being stripped, labor law being weakened, and the sheer size of the United States — are real. But insufficient punishments like these are a sure fire way to reinforce a dangerous trend of employer-friendly responses to worker safety issues. Business as usual usually favors business.