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The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration is patting itself on the back, reporting that workplace injuries and fatalities have been cut nearly in half by its efforts. "At the beginning of its fourth decade, OSHA is meeting its mandate to see that workers go home whole and healthy," the agency announced recently. Since President Richard Nixon signed the Occupational Safety and Health Act on Dec. 29, 1970, work-related fatalities are down 50% and occupational injuries have declined by 40%.
"The OSH Act established that America’s work-places should be free of hazards that threaten the lives and health of workers," said Alexis Herman, the outgoing secretary of Labor, as she made the announcement. "We have made significant progress toward that goal."
During the past 30 years, more than 700 work sites with topnotch safety and health programs were recognized under the Voluntary Protection Programs, and the agency is currently participating in nearly 100 additional specialized partnerships to find and fix hazards covering almost 110,000 employees across the country. More than 2.1 million individuals have taken safety and health training through OSHA-sponsored programs, while nearly 400,000 employers, mostly small businesses, have received free consultations to help them correct nearly 3 million hazards. Federal and state OSHA inspectors have visited more than 2.6 million work sites to help assure workplace safety and health.
Among OSHA’s success stories, the agency points to the cotton-dust standard as a clear win for workers, employers, and the U.S. economy. The number of workers with byssinosis or "brown lung" has fallen during the past 22 years from 12,000 to about 700 today as a result of reduced exposures mandated by the 1978 standard. At the same time, the actual capital costs of the standard were lower than OSHA predicted: $153 million instead of $550 million, and productivity in the textile industry grew more rapidly after the standard was promulgated than it had before.
Other highlights include standards on hazard communication, bloodborne pathogens and ergonomics, the agency’s Voluntary Protection Program and strategic partnerships, free consultations for small employers, the site-specific inspection targeting program, the agency’s phone-fax procedure to speed handling of complaints, and the extensive educational materials available on OSHA’s Web site.
The state of California also is reporting a trend toward improved occupational health and safety. Job-related nonfatal injury/illness rates in 1999 continued to decrease, reaching a record low of 6.3 workers injured out of every 100, reports the California Department of Industrial Relations’ division of labor statistics and research. That is the lowest rate since collection of workplace injury and illness statistics began in 1971.
The injury/illness rate decreased from 6.7 per 100 workers in 1998 to 6.3 in 1999, while employment increased 3%. The greatest declines in job-related injuries were in agriculture and construction: injuries and illnesses declined by one per 100 agriculture employees and 0.7 per 100 construction employees. This decrease is due in large part to the Cal/OSHA inspection programs targeting agriculture and construction. The programs are designed to decrease the number of injuries suffered by employees working for general building contractors and for farms producing crops.
"Targeting employers in the highest-hazard industries, such as construction and agriculture, has proved that employers with workplaces containing the highest proportions of fatalities, injuries, illness, and workers’ compensation losses often benefit the most from Cal/OSHA’s assistance," says Stephen Smith, director of the department of industrial relations.
Of the eight major industries, only one — finance, insurance, and real estate — recorded an increase in injuries and illnesses, up from 2.7 per 100 workers to 3.1. However, the number of lost workdays due to injuries and illnesses declined from 3.3 to 3.1 days per incidence. Of the nonfatal occupational illnesses reported, 56% were disorders associated with repeated trauma, which is a workplace ergonomics issue. The workplace injury/illness rate is a statistic that counts nonfatal accidents and exposures caused on the job.