On the campaign trail, President Barack Obama discussed the importance of helping boost the economy by easing regulatory burdens on companies where appropriate. OSHA certainly has been aggressive during the president's first term, dramatically increasing enforcement, and it might seem a logical first step to change tactics there. I continue to believe that ramped-up enforcement, by what was dubbed as the “new" OSHA, is misguided and ineffective.
But there is another second-term initiative that might be more successful in protecting workers while helping businesses: bringing outdated OSHA regulations into the 21st century.
Many of OSHA's standards haven't been changed since President Richard Nixon signed the agency into law in December 1970. Then, an estimated 14,000 workers were killed on the job each year, about 38 workers every day. While U.S. employment has tripled in the years since, the number of deaths has dropped by more than two-thirds to 12 workers per day, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The number of serious workplace injuries also has dropped significantly since 1970, from 11 per 100 workers in 1972 to 3.5 per 100 workers in 2010, the most recent year for which statistics are available.
It might seem logical, then, to look at those lowered injury rates as an unmitigated success story.
But serious worker accidents actually reached a plateau during the last few years of the Bush administration. President Obama's tougher stance hasn't worked and it's been a burden on businesses, already struggling in a challenging economy. Preliminary figures show that 2011 on-the-job fatalities are higher than in 2009, though slightly below the number for 2010.
A critical barrier to further progress can be found in OSHA regulations themselves, some of which haven't been updated since the Nixon administration. It's not hard to find references to equipment that no longer is used, and procedures that are no longer relevant. So if a second Obama administration indeed brings a new approach, I would recommend a focus on updating OSHA regulations. I believe this will resume the downward trend in injuries and illnesses.