The first Department of Labor budget of the Obama administration places an emphasis on workplace safety enforcement and other worker protections.
In a detailed proposal announced May 7, the agency asks Congress for $1.7 billion in funding for programs designed to ensure that employees are kept safe on the job and are paid all the wages and benefits they are due. The request represents a 10 percent increase over the previous fiscal year.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration would receive a $51 million increase in funding and hire 160 new officers. The Wage and Hour Division would get a $35 million budget increase and add 200 investigators.
In a Web video accompanying the release of the budget, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said that cracking down on workplace violations “is a very important part of my vision.”
Overall, 670 people will be added to the enforcement staff, which Solis said will bring it to a level it has not reached since 2001.
Congress, which is dominated by Democrats, is likely to approve the budget largely along the lines of the Obama request.
Democrats on Capitol Hill also are enthusiastic about strengthening OSHA.
Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-California and chair of the workforce protections subcommittee of the House Education and Labor Committee, introduced a bill in April that would allow workers and families to be more involved in OSHA investigations.
The Protecting America’s Workers Act would extend OSHA coverage to more workers, increase civil penalties for safety violations and index them to inflation.
In addition, the measure would allow felony prosecution of employers and their corporate officers who commit willful violations that result in worker death or serious injury.
House Republicans said they favor improving workplace safety but that increasing penalties was the wrong answer because current regulations are complex and confusing.
In emotional testimony before the House workforce protections subcommittee, Rebecca Foster testified that an Arkansas sawmill was fined $2,250 after it failed to put the proper safeguards on equipment that caught her stepson Jeremy’s shirt and strangled him to death.
“Did they place a value of our only son’s life at this amount [$2,250]?” she said. “It was as if OSHA had patted Deltic Timber on the back and said, ‘Good job, guys. You only killed one person.’ ”
An AFL-CIO study indicates that the average penalty for a serious OSHA infraction is less than $1,000; for a violation involving a worker’s death, it’s $11,300. In 2007, 5,657 workers died and more than 4 million were injured on the job.
The ranking Republican on the House labor committee, Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon of California, cited positive statistics. OSHA figures show that since 2001, deaths have declined 14 percent and injuries and illness rates have fallen 21 percent.
“The mentality should be to fix things, make things better rather than trying to punish,” McKeon said.