The Need for OSHA and the Risks of Staff Reductions

| Present

Stephanie Ruhle, on MSNBC’s Velshi and Ruhle several days ago, brought to the public’s attention the looming staffing problems within the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). NBC News had made a comprehensive report in a January 8, 2018, article, and we need to pay attention: OSHA is yet another agency, slowly being decimated by the Trump Administration, that works for all of us.

As the NBC report summarized, “OSHA inspectors are the ground troops that enforce federal health and safety requirements in the workplace. Inspectors flag potential hazards, investigate employee complaints, and document apparent violations, which can result in citations, fines and other penalties against employers. Since the agency has limited resources, OSHA prioritizes high-risk workplaces like construction sites and manufacturing plants that have elevated rates of fatal accidents, illnesses and serious injuries. (Twenty-one states run their own comprehensive OSHA programs with state inspectors.)”

The article reiterated conservative arguments about reducing waste, improving efficiency, etc. in government. It is generally agreeable by most of us that these goals should always be kept in mind; there is no good reason for wasting precious taxpayer dollars if it can be avoided.

The problem is that the reduction in the federal workforce can have very dire ramifications for citizens. Quoting again from the NBC article, “The federal government had 16,000 fewer permanent workers at the end of September than it had at the end of 2016 out of a workforce of nearly 2 million, according to data from the Office of Personnel Management. During the same time period, OSHA dropped below 2,000 permanent, full-time employees, with 116 fewer total staff than in December 2016, according to the latest personnel data.” OSHA needs inspectors to do its work. According to David Michaels, who headed OSHA during the Obama administration, “The lack of new inspectors makes OSHA invisible. If employers don’t think OSHA will come, workers are much more likely to be hurt.”

I have had occasion at two separate workplaces to become acquainted with OSHA regulations, how they help average Americans and how ignoring them hurts people. At one college at which I worked, there was no restroom in the Admissions building, in which eight people worked (mostly women). In a conversation with the college’s nurse practitioner, I learned that urinary tract infections were quite common among the occupants of that building; a UTI often results from people not using the restroom in a timely manner. I started looking into the OSHA regulations around this. Here is what I found:

  • OSHA outlines in Standard 29 CFR 1910.141(c)(1)(i): Toilet Facilities the reasons as to why restrooms need to be available for users when they need them. The background section states clearly, “Medical studies show the importance of regular urination, with women generally needing to void more frequently than men. Adverse health effects that may result from voluntary urinary retention include increased frequency of urinary tract infections (UTIs), which can lead to more serious infections and, in rare situations, renal damage.” Furthermore, “Restrictions on access [to toilet facilities] must be reasonable, and may not cause extended delay.”
  • The OSHA regulations give clear directives to employers: “In response to questions about reasonable access to toilet facilities over the last nearly 20 years, OSHA published letters of interpretation that, together, describe how employers ensure prompt access to toilet facilities. . . Employers must:
    • Provide an adequate number of restrooms for the size of the workforce to prevent long lines
    • Do not impose unreasonable restrictions on restroom use
    • Ensure restrictions, such as locking doors or requiring workers to sign out a key, do not cause extended delays
    • Allow workers to leave their work locations to use a restroom when needed.”

It became clear to me that the college at which I worked was not meeting OSHA regulations, and this was resulting in adverse effects on employees. Since the issue was not mine directly (and since complaining about the way things operated was not conducive to my well-being in the workplace), I told fellow employees about my findings and made the OSHA regulations available to them. Nothing except grumbling happened for quite a few years, but eventually and happily, the college finally constructed a restroom in the Admissions building.

Unfortunately, I found myself needing to bring my knowledge of OSHA regulations around toilet facilities to my next position, in another college. I learned from a colleague that the receptionist was consistently having challenges taking her restroom breaks. She was not allowed to leave the front desk, and other staff members were scheduled – every day, for lunch and morning and afternoon breaks – to come to the front desk so the receptionist could leave. The schedule was disruptive to the staffs’ schedules, however, and staff did not always remember to do their stint. The receptionist, being shy and afraid to lose her job (because that was part of the atmosphere of this school…), did not feel comfortable asking for help (although some staff members offered).

When I realized what was happening, I brought the issue to the attention of my supervisor, an attorney whom I thought would be sympathetic and the supervisor of the staff who were assigned to cover the front desk during the receptionist’s breaks. My attorney supervisor, however, insisted that the school was obeying relevant labor laws by arranging the staff schedules. I tried to explain that there was more than labor laws – there were also OSHA laws – but she refused to listen.

I then informed the receptionist’s direct supervisor, my closest friend at work, about the OSHA regulations. She spoke to the receptionist, and the problem was not immediately resolved, but after awhile, the receptionist started having health problems directly related to the restroom breaks. Her supervisor became more insistent and promised to back her up if she had to take a restroom break without someone to cover the desk for her. Things started to improve.

Then, tragedy: the supervisor, only in her early 50s, died suddenly and unexpectedly. Because the receptionist never knew about my involvement in her situation, I could not intervene with her and tell her about the OSHA regulations. The receptionist’s medical problems started again (I learned through the grapevine) because her “protector” was dead, and I hadn’t any luck earlier raising the issue with my supervisor.

It was then time for drastic action. I sent the OSHA regulations to both my direct supervisor and hers, the Dean. The Dean responded appropriately – although, given her stances on many other issues, I felt cynically that things only improved when she realized the school could get sued, not because she had any sympathy toward her staff… At any rate, the problem was resolved, at least until I left my position.

All American workers should be familiar with their rights under OSHA – and should stand up for themselves and their fellow workers whenever possible if they witness violations of the laws. The regulations, which cover issues around temperature, chemical handling, ventilation, noise, fire, first aid, and many other workplace issues, are easily found with a google search, and oftentimes employers will respond appropriately to even a whisper of a potential lawsuit if the regulations are pointed out to them.

Americans should also be alert to the continued decimation by the Trump Administration of OSHA and other vital federal agencies – and find ways to help ensure that agencies remain sufficiently staffed to protect us all.