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Heavy Hand Of Osha Strangles

Lucinda B. Willits Knight-Ridder/Tribune

A year-and-a-half ago, my parents had to close their small feed plant in southeastern Idaho. The plant processed grain and barley, mostly for dairy cows.

When the business shut its doors, six employees lost their jobs, including my parents, now in their mid-‘50s. Several factors contributed to the decision to close up shop, including a lagging agricultural economy (due in part to the government’s decision to pay dairy farmers to slaughter their cows in the mid-1980s) and my father’s poor health. But the biggest contributor was the regulatory and paperwork avalanche the federal government dumped on them. It simply wasn’t worth it to put up with such meddling and incompetence day in and day out.

My parents’ experience with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is a case in point. After an employee partially severed his finger in a grain auger, a machine that churns grain to the top of a silo, OSHA paid my parents a visit. Of course, the employee had been instructed on the proper use of the auger and had specifically been told never to stick his hand in the moving gears and to unplug the machine before attempting any repairs. But it was one of those unheeded warnings, like “don’t play ball in the street.”

OSHA inspected the plant and fined my parents more than $3,500. No warnings were given. Were the citations for significant safety violations or for spewing toxic chemicals into the environment? No. My parents were fined for not having a “written energy-control program” or a “written hazardous-communication program.”

I still haven’t figured out exactly what either of these terms mean. Nevertheless, the two violations carried a total fine of $1,200. My parents objected, saying they had given their employees proper safety instruction. But to OSHA bureaucrats, nothing is real unless it’s written down. (One imagines signs like “Danger: Open Door Before Attempting To Enter Building” at OSHA headquarters.)

Just to understand how silly this is, my parents were also cited for not having a written “housekeeping” program. In other words, there wasn’t a written daily schedule outlining when and how to clean the facilities. The same inspector who cited them for this extraordinary lapse of OSHA etiquette told my parents their plant was one of the cleanest she had ever seen.

Most absurd was the $1,500 fine my parents were hit with for not having a metal guard blocking the front of the auger that chewed up the employee’s finger. In fact, the type of guard OSHA was demanding isn’t even manufactured. My parents were fined for not having something you can’t even purchase!

My parents appealed the case, traveling more than five hours to Boise to meet with OSHA officials. They were told that fines could never be forgiven, only reduced. The fines were cut in half to $1,800 and my parents were put on a payment plan. When my parents asked how they could be better informed of the regulations, the OSHA official handed them a three-inch-thick government manual to read.

Unfortunately, my parents’ situation is not uncommon. There are plenty of OSHA horror stories. While small businesses account for 80 percent of the nation’s economic activity, they are bruised and battered by nitpicky, expensive regulations every day. Indeed, the Small Business Administration reports that businesses with 20 to 49 employees spend an average of 19 cents out of every dollar they earn complying with regulations.

While all Americans favor safe workplaces, I don’t think it’s unfair to ask whether OSHA (whose work, incidentally, is duplicated by state safety agencies) is worth the $34 billion its regulations cost the economy each year. The fact is, more than 60 percent of all workplace fatalities aren’t the result of safety violations but are caused by transportation accidents and workplace assaults, two hazards over which OSHA has no jurisdiction. Of the citations OSHA does give, more than half are for paperwork violations, like not having a “written energy-control program.”

At the very least, OSHA needs to adopt a more sensible policy for violations that pose no immediate hazards. Many businesses don’t even know they’re violating some obscure regulation until they receive a citation. A warning system would give them the time and information they need to correct minor problems. Employers also need to have a simple mechanism, short of legal action, for appealing their case and having fines eliminated, not simply reduced.

I would like the opportunity to operate my own business someday. But with agencies like OSHA badgering you all the time, it’s easier to work for someone else.


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