The Utah Mine Disaster: A Teachable Moment About Workplace Safety


Before the hordes of reporters move on from the Crandall Canyon Mine disaster, taking their note pads, satellite trucks, and the nation's attention with them, we should seize the opportunity to turn this tragedy into a teachable moment -- one that will allow us to look beyond the tragedy in Utah and the dreadful safety record of the mining industry, and focus on the larger issue of worker safety.

During the Bush administration, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the agency meant to oversee workplace safety, has been more intent on providing protection to employers than workers -- eliminating dozens of safety regulations since 2001.

"The people at OSHA have no interest in running a regulatory agency," said Dr. David Michaels, a George Washington University expert on workplace safety. "The concern about protecting workers has gone out the window."

Peg Seminario, director of occupational safety and health at the AFL-CIO, agrees: "They've simply gotten out of the standard-setting business in favor of industry partnerships that have no teeth."

Indeed, over the six and a half years Bush has been president, OSHA has imposed only one major safety rule, and has reduced the categories of recognized workplace injuries. Nevertheless, in 2005, the last year government statistics are available, 4.2 million workers were injured or became ill from on the job causes. And more than 6,800 workers died from workplace injuries.

Yet we rarely hear much about worker safety -- until high-profile deaths like the ones in Utah put the well being of American workers into the media spotlight. Why does it take a tragedy to grab our attention -- and for our government to pass and enforce worker safety laws?

The unsettling reason hangs over the Utah mine cave-in like a cloud of coal dust: as I detailed on Monday, more and more frequently, federal regulatory agencies are being used as a payback mechanism for rewarding major political donors, with industry hacks given key government positions not because they are the best people to protect the public interest but because they are willing to protect the very industries they are meant to supervise.

That's what has happened with OSHA, which is under the leadership of Edwin Foulke, a lawyer with a long history of open hostility to health and safety regulations. Earlier in his career, while serving as chairman of the federal agency that hears appeals from companies cited by OSHA, Foulke led a successful effort to weaken OSHA's enforcement power. With Foulke now in charge of his former target, OSHA has, not surprisingly, issued fewer significant standards than any time in its history.

Foulke's agency is charged with overseeing regulation of the transportation, agribusiness, and constructions industries -- powerful interests that have together contributed more than $630 million since 2000, with over $450 million of that going to the GOP.

Foulke and Richard Stickler, the fox Bush has guarding the mining industry henhouse, might as well have been presented to the GOP's big money backers with a ribbon around their heads, like the proper gift they were.

And in the Bush years you can find such overly cozy relationships between regulators and those they regulate throughout the government.

The Food and Drug Administration, for example, has long been under the thumb of the very pharmaceutical companies it is supposed to oversee. This dysfunctional dynamic has proved especially deadly, with numerous drugs being pulled off the market after causing multiple deaths and serious injuries in patients.

Following the money once again, we see that Big Pharma spent over $170 million on lobbying in 2006, and has contributed over $66 million to federal candidates since 2002, with over $46 million of it going to Republicans.

In return, the Bush administration has served up FDA commissioners like Lester Crawford who was forced to resign after failing to disclose that he owned stock in companies regulated by his agency, and current FDA commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach, a vocal supporter of faster drug approvals.

The Bush administration has also given back to big business interests by taking away: the FDA is conducting only half the food inspections it was doing in 2003, and safety-testing of U.S.-produced food has dropped nearly 75 percent since 2003. This despite an upswing in highly publicized food recalls and outbreaks of food poisoning. And with more and more of our food coming from other countries, how does it make you feel to know that just 1.3 percent of food imports were physically examined by FDA inspectors in 2006?

The bracing truth is that we now have a regulatory system in which corporate greed, political timidity, and a culture of cronyism are the order of the day.

It was announced today that after Labor Day, the Senate will hold hearings on the Utah Mine disaster. And, in the House, Reps. Lynn Woolsey and George Miller have promised a probe into the Utah disaster and its aftermath. Such congressional investigations are essential. But they need to focus on more than what happened at Crandall Canyon Mine -- and even on more than just mine safety. They should also focus on exposing all the reasons in our political system that make it so easy for the health and safety of U.S. workers and consumers to be reduced to an afterthought -- moved to the front burner only when tragedy strikes. And then only for a short while.

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