OSHA Must Protect and Prepare Workers for the 21st Century
his Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is a generational opportunity to invest in America at a level not seen since the years directly following World War Two. The Law, which has its genesis in Joe Biden’s “once in a generation” infrastructure funding platform and in Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio’s Invest Act, is ushering in transformative investments in the nation’s roads, bridges, and rails. It does not stop there. It is also investing in human infrastructure, via appropriations that address high-speed internet access, the climate crisis, and environmental justice. There is one area, though, that sits at the intersection of human and physical infrastructure which is not getting the proper attention – construction safety and modernization.
Per OSHA's 2019 report, 5,333 workers died on the job. There can be no debating that this number is completely unacceptable, especially since the vast majority of those deaths were preventable. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) plays an outsized role in investigating workplace injuries and deaths and has at its disposable the ability to issue fines, shut down unsafe job sites, and even work with the DOJ to prosecute criminally negligent actors. But there is more we must do, and can do, to keep workers safe and ensure the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law’s investment in America fulfills its promise.
In 2012, a Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions hearing brought attention to OSHA’s laborious regulatory review process, “Time Takes Its Toll: Delays in OSHA’s Standard-Setting Process and the Impact on Worker Safety,” citing an average time of no less than eight years to update one standard as unacceptable. During that hearing Dr. Michael Silverstein, former Assistant Director for Industrial Safety and Health of the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries, stated that OSHA’s lockout/tagout standard update (which took twelve years) could have been potentially saved between 184 to 502 lives had it been passed in six years.
In the ten years since those hearings, OSHA has failed to improve its regulatory review process. As current member of the House Committee on Education and Labor Congresswoman Alma Adams pointed out in a subcommittee hearing on May 25, 2022, that taking eight years to review a single safety regulation is harmful to American workers. The men and women who work every day on job sites see problems, know the issues, and have ideas to fix them. Protective exoskeletons, tracking sensors, virtual reality training devices, and crane load stabilization devices are not only driving innovation, but also have the promise to keep American workers safe while providing new skills and opportunities.
If OSHA does not find a way to improve its process for updating safety regulations, we fear Congress’ generational investment in American workers and infrastructure will fail to live up to its lofty promise. Vita Industrial is just one of the countless advocates bringing attention to this issue. We hope that OSHA will work more closely with the industry and Congress and listen to the men and women who are put in harm’s way because of outdated safety standards. We all must work together to protect the new generation entering the workforce, ensure that they are equipped with the tools for the jobsite of the 21st Century, and are protected by safety standards to match.