Why Critics of State and Federal Workplace Safety Systems Might be Right

Source: Jonathan Walters, Governing, August 2013

The fatal explosion earlier this year at a Texas fertilizer plant that hadn’t been inspected since 1985 brought attention to the nation’s dysfunctional and ineffective system of keeping employees — both in the public and private sectors — safe…

…Two revelations in particular caught the attention of the public and press. The first was that the plant hadn’t been subject to a safety inspection since 1985. The second was that a key player seemed to be missing in the safety equation: the Texas Occupational Safety and Health Administration. In fact, the two revelations are directly related. Texas doesn’t have an occupational safety and health administration. The responsibility for workplace safety in Texas falls to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which is stretched pretty thin these days.

The country, in short, has a bifurcated system of oversight. The federal OSHA is responsible for workplace safety in some states, while in others, state-run OSHA offices handle the job themselves. The questions, then, for states on either side of the bifurcation are: How effective is the oversight of workplaces — from oil rigs and fertilizer plants to office buildings and beauty salons? Who’s in charge? How well are they doing their jobs? These are surprisingly complicated questions with no easy answers….

…It gets even more muddled. U.S. OSHA doesn’t cover state and local employees, only private-sector and federal workers. So five states operate their own bifurcated systems whereby the feds cover private-sector and federal workers and the state covers state and local employees. Twenty-two states have programs that cover all workers — private and public. The remaining 32 states are covered by U.S. OSHA. (Most state programs were put in place in the 1970s, soon after passage of the federal law; few states have elected to take over responsibility for workplace health and safety since then, although Illinois did extend oversight to state and local employees in 2009.)…