Unregulating at OSHA:

Today's New York Times features an extensive report on the actions (or lack thereof) at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) under the Bush Administration. The story reports the unsurprising fact that the current administration is less aggressive at promulgating new workplace safety regulations than the Clinton Administration.

Since George W. Bush became president, OSHA has issued the fewest significant standards in its history, public health experts say. It has imposed only one major safety rule. The only significant health standard it issued was ordered by a federal court.

The agency has killed dozens of existing and proposed regulations and delayed adopting others. For example, OSHA has repeatedly identified silica dust, which can cause lung cancer, and construction site noise as health hazards that warrant new safeguards for nearly three million workers, but it has yet to require them.

The story contains several anecdotal accounts of Bush Administration inaction and a brief description of the administration's preferred approach of "voluntary compliance," whereby OSHA facilitates industry self-policing efforts.
Administration officials say such programs are less costly, allowing companies to hire more workers and keep consumer prices down. The number of voluntary agreements has grown in recent years, but they cover a fraction of the seven million work sites that OSHA oversees, or less than 1 percent of the work force. Sixty-one food plants out of the tens of thousands across the country participate; industry representatives say other businesses are taking steps to protect workers on their own.
The story quotes various critics of the administration's policies, recounts various anecdotes about specific safety issues, and suggests that the change in policy is placing workers at risk. Data on the rate of workplace fatalities and injuries do not appear to bear out that claim, however. According to the administration, "workplace deaths and injuries have declined during their tenure." Notes the Times, "OSHA officials say that since 2001, the fatality rate has declined by 7 percent and the injury rate by 19 percent." Critics discount these numbers, but the story offers no contrary data. BLS data seem to support the agency's claims. (See here and here.)

The promulgation of new regulations and level of enforcement activity are poor proxies for workplace protection. Whether or not Bush administration bureaucrats are busy regulating and monitoring industrial workplaces is less important than whether or not workers are exposed to unreasonable or uncompensated risks. If workplace injuries and fatalities are on the decline, as they appear to be (and as they were prior to the creation of OSHA), the relevant question is whether OSHA has the ability to accelerate this trend in a cost-effective manner. If not, there is no reason to be upset if this or any other administration has taken the OSHA cop off the beat.