The recent Texas fertilizer plant explosion tragedy has focused the nation’s attention on worker safety. It is critical that legislators and worker safety experts seize this moment for the betterment of workers nationwide before memories fade and worker safety is no longer one of the public’s top priorities. In particular, it will important for federal officials to focus their attention on the ability of the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) to prevent work injuries, work accidents generally and occupational illness.

Why OSHA? Because this agency is the most visible and influential organization representing worker safety interests in America. And unfortunately, its authority is not broad enough to prevent certain kinds of injuries from happening and its budget is so stretched that it only has the capacity to inspect every American workplace once every 131 years.

Improving OSHA’s ability to prevent workplace catastrophes should be a top priority for legislators. At present, American workers are killed on the job every eight minutes and are hurt every 2.5 seconds. These statistics are simply unacceptable. While OSHA’s efforts have significantly improved the ability of workers to remain safe on the job, its capacity remains limited and workers continue to suffer as a result.

Workplace accidents, injuries, illnesses and fatalities are largely preventable. By empowering OSHA to broaden its authority and its inspection capacity through increased budgetary allowances, it will be able to operate in ways that protect a greater population of workers.

In addition, the fines that OSHA imposes tend to be disproportionately small to the safety infractions committed by employers. By imposing larger fines, employers could be inspired to keep their workers safe in the first place and OSHA could use said fines to operate more effectively nationwide. These are ideas worth embracing soon, before memory of the last tragic work accident fades just before another preventable accident occurs.

Source: New York Times, “We Need a Whole New Approach,” Michael A. Silverstein, Apr. 29, 2013