As we have seen in recent weeks, OSHA’s ability to protect workers has severe limitations due to underfunding. In 1980, OSHA employed 2950 people. In 2006, it employed only 2092 people, despite the near doubling of the size of the workforce. The explosion at the West Fertilizer plant in Texas on April 17 that killed at least 14 people demonstrated the agency’s very real limitations. There are so few OSHA inspectors that it would take 129 years to inspect every workplace in the country at current staffing levels. Punishment for OSHA violations are often weak and employers have minimum fear that of any real punishment.
Between 2001 and 2011, OSHA has issued just four new health and safety standards; during this period, the agency has promulgated regulations at a far slower rate than during any other decade in the agency’s history.
One of the most consistent conservative memes has been that OSHA is a bunch of pointy-headed government bureaucrats who focus on niggling little details. Here’s a newspaper column from 1976, six years after OSHA was created, about President Ford’s 1976 campaign statement that he’d want to throw OSHA “into the ocean”. It’s been a 40 year Republican/corporate effort to keep this part of the beast on life support, and West, Texas is just one of the many success stories that have been left along the way.