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OSHA shifts focus to potential detriment of worker safety

The recent tragedy that unfolded at a Texas fertilizer plant underscores the need for American employers to prioritize worker safety above all else. There is truly no way to prevent worker injury aside from remaining vigilant about safety with regards to every element of a given workplace. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is the federal agency charged with ensuring that American workplaces are safe for employees. However, days before the Texas fertilizer plant explosion, OSHA announced a shift in focus away from strict worker safety enforcement.

Facing a shortage in its budget, OSHA has announced that it will be conducting 1,700 fewer worksite inspections in 2014 than it did in 2012. The agency insists that it will be devoting its remaining resources to investigating certain complex and time-consuming safety violators. However, narrowing OSHA's focus to a few high-profile worksite safety situations will almost undoubtedly cause worksite safety to suffer in numerous unobserved sites nationwide.

Employee safety is not just an issue in a few workplaces. It is an issue in every workplace. From slip-and-fall risks in retail stores to potential explosion risks in fertilizer plants, each American workplace is at risk of contributing to the injury, illness and death of employees who work in them.

OSHA has committed itself to inspecting high numbers of facilities where employees may be regularly exposed to violence and toxic exposure. However, every workplace should be operating as if OSHA is scheduled to walk in the door at any moment. The Texas fertilizer plant explosion occurred in a workplace under-investigated by OSHA. If OSHA cuts back on inspections, what tragedy will strike next?

Source: Bloomberg BNA, "Fewer Safety, More Health Inspections Proposed by Federal OSHA for 2014," Bruce Rolfsen, Apr. 18, 2013

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