Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)

The Labor Department in The Carter Administration: A Summary Report — January 14, 1981 By Ray Marshall

Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)

The dominant feature of OSHA during the Carter Administration was the establishment of "common sense priorities"

The priorities were: (1) getting serious about serious dangers; (2) simplifying regulations and eliminating unnecessary rules; and (3) helping America's small business save money and lives.

Within the framework of getting serious about serious dangers, OSHA emphasized the need to protect the worker's health as well as safety.

In 1977, OSHA proposed its generic cancer standard for identifying, classifying and regulating potential occupational carcinogens, in an effort designed to speed the regulation of such substances. In 1980, OSHA announced the nation's first comprehensive policy to identify and regulate workplace carcinogens.

As one of the initial steps in implementing that standard, OSHA issued for public comment a "candidate list" of substances for further scientific review as potential carcinogens.

While rulemaking on the generic cancer policy was in progress, OSHA issued final standards limiting worker exposure to: benzene, the pesticide DBCP, arsenic, cotton dust (plus cotton dust in the ginning industry), acrylonitrile, and lead.

The lead standard was especially notable because, for the first time in the history of OSHA's health standards, it contained provisions for medical removal protection, in terms of pay, seniority, or other employment rights and benefits.

Another major OSHA regulation permitted worker access to employer maintained medical and toxic exposure records.

An early common sense priority project was the thorough review of all safety standards to eliminate those that had little or no bearing on worker safety or health.

In 1978, 928 provisions of the safety standards unneeded or unrelated to job safety and health were eliminated. The revoked provisions made up roughly 10 percent of the word volume of OSHA's standards.

The revocation project was followed up with the consolidation in one volume of all general industry standards applying to construction with the construction standards themselves.

The first major rewrite and simplification of safety standards under the common sense approach came in December 1978, with the proposed revision of OSHA's worker fire protection regulations, followed in September 1979 by the proposed revision of electrical standards for general industry.

Other highlights of the agency's safety standards development program included the promulgation in 1980 of regulations to protect an estimated 322,000 workers who service potentially explosive tube type truck, bus, trailer and other tires using multi-piece rim wheels; and a final standard for perimeter guarding of low pitched roofs to protect workers from falls, also promulgated in 1980.

The common sense priority of "getting serious about serious dangers" probably was emphasized most in the agency's enforcement and compliance activities. In FY 1980, when 63,363 inspections were conducted, there were 49,474 alleged serious, willful and repeat violations, about 37 percent of the total, whereas in FY 1977 only 14 percent fell into these categories.

The agency also acted resolutely in dealing with serious violators of safety and health regulations. In February 1980, the agency cited the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company, the nation's largest shipbuilder, with 617 alleged violations of federal safety and health regulations, and proposed penalties totaling $786,190, more than double the largest amount ever proposed against any one firm.

OSHA investigated two great tragedies which struck industry during the Carter Administration. The first was a series of grain elevator explosions in various parts of the country during the winter of 1977-1978 in which about 60 workers died and an even greater number were injured. The second involved the collapse of a cooling tower under construction on Willow Island, W.Va., April 27, 1978, in which 51 men fell to their deaths.

Throughout the four years, court decisions played an important role in OSHA's enforcement and compliance activities.

In 1980, the Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision (Marshall v. Whirlpool), upheld the right of workers to refuse to do a job which presented an immediate danger of death or serious injury.

Also in 1980, however, the Supreme Court affirmed a decision by the Fifth Circuit which set aside OSHA's benzene standard ruling. OSHA had failed to make an adequate formal finding that the standard would remedy a significant health risk.

In an earlier major decision (Marshall v. Barlow's Inc.) in May 1978, the Court addressed the constitutionality of OSHA's inspection procedures and held that warrant requirements of the Fourth Amendment were applicable to OSHA inspections. The Court, however, also construed the OSH Act to permit inspection with an employer's consent or, where consent has not been given, with a judicially authorized search warrant or its equivalent.

In other court action, the D.C. Circuit upheld the validity of OSHA's lead standard for the major lead industries, but in a separate ruling vacated, on technical grounds, OSHA's regulations requiring employers to pay employees for time spent in accompanying OSHA compliance officers during walk around inspections.

With aid to small business a cornerstone in the common sense approach, the needs of small enterprises were constantly kept in mind. OSHA initiated moves to reduce record keeping and reporting requirements for small businesses, while simplifying and streamlining forms.

All employers with 10 or fewer employees were exempted from OSHA's record keeping requirements unless selected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics for its annual survey of on the job injuries and illnesses. The reduction in subsequent paperwork was estimated to have saved employers about $100 million annually.

OSHA also announced that there would be 90 percent federal funding for states to give free onsite consultation to employers who request it, with requests from small business receiving priority.

In June 1979, OSHA hired a special assistant for small business and worked with the Small Business Administration to increase participation by small business in OSHA's rulemaking. In an additional effort to target its resources to specific areas of need, a special assistant for the construction industry was appointed and inspectors with specialized knowledge of the construction industry were recruited.

Since then, OSHA grants have gone to 155 employer association and small business groups, labor organizations, academic groups, and non profit public service bodies. The grants totaled $34.6 million.

In other significant activities, OSHA published and distributed a series of booklets and posters both in English and Spanish on workers rights, and issued final rules for establishing the basic program elements to enable federal agencies to carry out their new safety and health responsibilities under President Carter's Executive Order extending occupational safety and health protection for federal employees.