Industry has historically been a dangerous place to work, especially during the Industrial Revolution, as standards for safety and operational procedures were not yet being realized. Over time this has of course changed but there will always be dangers.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, commonly called "OSHA," was founded to protect American workers from unsafe conditions. It has thorough, published guidelines that describe a long list of workplace hazards, and just as many inspectors who enforce these standards. Those companies who fail to comply can be fined or otherwise punished by the government.
OSHA regulations only apply to the private sector. Since it does not protect government employees, some States have similar agencies that prevent workplace hazards for the benefit of government workers.
Many of the hazards at issue are environmental. They include noise, dust, mold, and indoor air quality.
A recently decided case relating to an Illinois company, lets call it the "G" company, demonstrates how OSHA functions. G makes brakes and wheels. The decision was issued in September 2004, by the OSHA Commissioners who serve as an administrative appeals board.
According to the decision, "G" forms sand molds from a mixture of sand, clay and water. After melted scrap iron is poured into the molds, the iron solidifies and the castings are shaken to remove the sand. They are then transported through a system of conveyors for processing.
The sand contains silica, which if inhaled can cause severe illness. The process involves a lot of shaking, which causes a lot of this silica to become airborne.
When the system was first implemented in 1989, the amount of airborne sand produced a "disaster." Numerous attempts at fixing the problem mechanically have not proven successful.
Major insurance companies who insure G have inspected the operations, and have concluded that more must be done to protect the workers.
In 1997, "G" adopted a policy requiring workers in affected areas to wear respirators to safeguard them from the airborne particulates. However, an insurance company report observed that the requirement was not being strictly enforced.
Ultimately, three cases of silicosis, a condition that is caused by excessive exposure, were reported by the company. Even after these reports, the level of protection apparently remained largely unchanged.
The company was fined over $100,000, and some of its conduct was described as willful. On appeal, most of the penalty was upheld.
What did we learn from this? First, that OSHA provides some protection.
Second, that the protection may be limited. $100,000, while a lot of money, seems very little in the case of a company that elected to maintain unsafe operations that hurt at least three workers.
Ultimately, OSHA is there for the workers, enforcing safe standards, and punishing those who are not up to code. But for many American workers, it does not do nearly enough.