Friday, April 22, 2011

How Many Ladders Does it Take to Keep a Workplace Safe?

April 28 marks the 40th anniversary of OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. I was never convinced that the nation needed OSHA.

In 1971, I attended a seminar to learn how the new OSHA law applied to highway construction. The first topic discussed was the chapter of regulations on trenches. We learned that any excavated trench 3 feet deep or deeper required escape ladders spaced every 25 feet.

If a 3-foot-deep trench collapses, the angle of repose of the fallen earth will limit the depth of the dirt and rock in the center of the trench to a foot or less. In a trench that is 4 feet wide or wider, there would be no dirt in the center. Regardless, escape ladders were required.

This “3 foot rule” brought laughter. Well, the men with calloused hands laughed very hard. Those with clean fingernails just giggled nervously but knew not why.

The instructor then directed us to the chapter on ladders. There was page after page of regulations on how to build a ladder. The key language here was that ladders must be 6 feet long or longer.

A 4-year-old child who has ridden the playground teeter-totter knows about fulcrums, but not the architects of OSHA. With this revelation, the laughter was over. It had become crystal clear that the OSHA rules had been written and approved by desk jockeys with no work experience and no common sense.

OSHA required trucks and heavy equipment to have back-up alarms. Every time the machine backed up, the alarm beeped to warn everyone.

Good idea in conference room theory. Not always so good in practice. In a congested area like a highway cut, with three vehicles backing up at the same time (a common event), the alarms confuse everyone. The alarms echo off the walls of a cut, the same as they would in a canyon.

I never have been in favor of back-up alarms. For one thing, back-up alarms lull you into a false sense of security. If the alarm fails to work, and that does happen, you may get run over while waiting to hear a horn beep. When one works around heavy equipment, staying alert is the only safe option.

At the 1971 seminar, we also reviewed the chapter on fire extinguishers. Never have I read a document so vague and so confusing. The only conclusion I could draw was for a business to buy a lot of fire extinguishers and hope they had enough of them when OSHA showed up.

Because OSHA required so many fire extinguishers in the workplace, the agency must have thought that, in case of fire, the workers would play hero, grab fire extinguishers and fight the fire until they were overcome by smoke. I thought it was counter-productive for a safety agency to expect everyday workers to fight fires.

Before OSHA, few fire extinguishers were sold, and the sellers were relegated to peddler status. After OSHA, fire extinguisher peddlers became very successful businessmen.

In February, a congressional committee called OSHA to task for being a job killer. Assistant Labor Secretary David Michaels defended OSHA by saying: “…there is clear evidence that OSHA’s commonsense regulations have made working conditions in this country today far safer than 40 years ago …, while at the same time protecting American jobs.”

Then he went purple, claiming that “OSHA standards … drive technological innovation, making industries more competitive.”

As proof, OSHA reverts to statistics. They cite that workplace injuries per 100 workers have dropped dramatically since 1972. This is a fool’s errand, comparing the workplace of 1972 to the current workplace.

The accident rates fell because we either exported the dirty, dangerous jobs overseas or replaced domestic workers with automated, robotic machinery. For example, comparing the American auto plant of 1972 with today’s plant is like comparing apples to kumquats. (Credit Japan, not OSHA.)

Not just manufacturing has been automated. Computers answer telephones; computers operate other machines. ATMs have replaced thousands of bank tellers. We explore Mars with a robot. And so on.

Injury lawsuits have done more to improve workplace safety than anything OSHA has done. The Mandolidis decision in 1978 alone sent a message to companies to either automate the equipment, export the dangerous jobs or be sued out of existence.

Forty years of OSHA rules notwithstanding, humans are as accident-prone as ever. The demands of the marketplace and resulting advances in technology have made jobsites safer.

The government is broke. OSHA is a luxury we cannot afford.

Happy birthday, OSHA.

Double check your fire extinguishers before blowing out the candles.