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West Fertilizer Co. and the Politics of Disaster

Photo: Photo by Shane Torgerson, License: N/A

Photo by Shane Torgerson

Aerial photo of the west explosion site taken several days after blast (4/22/2013)

Created in 1970 after intense lobbying from labor unions, OSHA inspections and regulations led to an immediate decrease in workplace injuries and fatalities. However the ascension of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, with his focus on small government, sent the agency into a tailspin. Cuts to OSHA’s funding became a regular part of yearly budget compromises. Under industry pressure, OSHA adopted a policy of voluntary compliance wherein business was entrusted to regulate itself.

The 30-year assault on OSHA’s budget led to the dwindling effectiveness of the agency. The number of OSHA inspectors peaked in 1980 at 2,950. Today, with 50 million more workers in the workforce, OSHA’s staff has been reduced to 2,178. The continual creation of bureaucratic hurdles means that it now takes eight years for OSHA to promulgate simple regulations. The organization is so understaffed and underfunded that it can only inspect each workplace in the country once every 175 years. Its paltry annual budget of half a billion dollars is 15 times smaller than that of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Cuts to OSHA mean serious consequences. In 2011, the latest year for which the Bureau of Labor Statistics has full statistics, more Americans died from work-related accidents (4,609) than died in the entire eight-year war in Iraq; and 2011 was a down year due to high unemployment. In the 20 years spanning 1992 to 2011, almost twice as many Americans died in work related accidents (115,007) as died in the 20-year Vietnam War.

In Texas, where Governor Rick Perry has worked hard to create a business-friendly, anti-union atmosphere, Texans have been forced to pay an especially high toll. With only 98 OSHA inspectors in the state, Texas has the fourth highest ratio of workers to inspectors in the country. Texas led the nation in work-related fatalities in 2011 with 433, outpacing the next state on the list, California, despite California’s much larger workforce.

Many labor rights advocates hoped that the election of President Barack Obama would lead to a revitalization of OSHA. But the agency continues to be the target of Washington belt tightening. Cuts mandated by the Sequester (8.2% for OSHA) will only increase the number of already-planned layoffs for fiscal year 2013.

Going to work remains one of the most dangerous things a person can do in the United States. This is especially true in the state of Texas where politicians like George W. Bush and Rick Perry have spearheaded a hands-off approach when it comes to business. With the much-hyped effort to “turn Texas blue,” one wonders whether OSHA can be saved, at least in this state. Or will it be politics as usual?

Mary Anne Henderson is a SA native currently pursuing her Ph.D in history at University of Washington, Seattle.

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