a dangerous business
mcwane story

toothless in washington?
Over the past 20 years, the prevailing wisdom in Washington has been that regulation strangles business. Under heavy lobbying by industry, the power of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has been challenged, making it easier for some companies to dismiss the agency's efforts to enforce workplace safety laws. "The fact is they consider OSHA a mosquito," former OSHA administrator Charles Jeffress tells FRONTLINE. "They'd rather pay the fines than bring their plants into compliance." Here's a closer look at OSHA and the politics of workplace safety, including interviews with Jeffress and OSHA's current administrator, John Henshaw, and a Web-exclusive analysis by Prof. David Weil of Boston University and Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

John Henshaw has been assistant secretary of labor for occupational health and safety since August 2001. In this interview, he maintains that OSHA regulations are strong and points for evidence to the "significant" reduction of workplace injuries, illnesses, and fatalities over the past 30 years. He also says that he believes OSHA enforcement actions should be targeted at "bad actors" -- those companies with the highest injury rates and worst violation records. This is an edited transcript of his interview with FRONTLINE, conducted on Sept. 30, 2002.

Charles Jeffress served as assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health during the late 1990s. In this interview, Jeffress argues that federal workplace safety laws are weak, pointing out that "to willfully violate the law and kill someone is a misdemeanor under the OSHA Act." He also explains how the theory behind the 1970 Occupational Safety and Health Act was to be preventive and assess penalties for existing hazards. However, he warns that in practice the OSHA law "has inadequate teeth" for the federal government to rein in a rogue company. This is an edited transcript of his interview with FRONTLINE, conducted on Sept. 30, 2002.

OSHA has long been at the center of ideological battles over the power and reach of the federal government. In this Web-exclusive essay for FRONTLINE, Prof. David Weil of Boston University and Harvard's Kennedy School of Government looks at the political context in which OSHA has historically operated and the political realities it now faces. He then offers his analysis of where OSHA has been most (and least) effective in the past and what it will take to make OSHA more effective -- and our workplaces safer -- in the future.

Since the creation of OSHA 32 years ago, there have been more than 200,000 workplace-related deaths. However, OSHA has referred only 151 cases to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution. Federal prosecutors have declined to pursue two-thirds of these cases, and only eight of them have resulted in prison sentences for company officials. Here's a look at those eight cases.

> Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA)

OSHA's Web site offers an overview of the agency's history, its mission, and the full range of its activities. It provides a wide array of information geared to help educate employers and workers, including extensive guides on compliance assistance and cooperative programs, official agency publications and transcripts, and a section on nationwide OSHA inspection statistics and data.

> OSH Act of 1970

The complete text of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, by which Congress established OSHA.

> BLS: Injuries, Illnesses, Fatalities

This section of the Bureau of Labor Statistics site includes the most recent data on illnesses and injuries on the job, as well as the most recent Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries.

> National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)

Part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), NIOSH is "the federal agency responsible for conducting research and making recommendations for the prevention of work-related disease and injury." It's Web site provides a wealth of information and many useful links.

home / transcript / mcwane story / toothless in washington / workers' comp fraud
cost of workplace injuries / discussion / ny times features / readings & links
press reaction / tapes & transcripts / credits / privacy policy / nytimes.com chat / reporter's chat
FRONTLINE / wgbh / pbsi

photograph copyright ©2003 geostock/getty images - all rights reserved
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation