Workplace safety has improved

Patrick Gibbons

The Las Vegas Sun editorial board once again has written about workplace safety and the "need" to increase regulatory costs and oversight. Citing as anecdotal evidence the 12 construction tragedies in the last 19 months on the Las Vegas Strip, the Sun makes the outrageous claim that President Bush has stripped the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) of its power and placed all Americans' lives at risk in their workplace.

So what are the facts?

According to the Las Vegas Sun, in 1975 OSHA had a budget of $411 million (in 2008 dollars) with 2,435 OSHA workers. Today OSHA's budget has grown to $472 million and its full-time staff has fallen to 2,165 people.

The Sun laments the fact that OSHA now does the same job with fewer staff (maybe they learned how to be more efficient – you know, like how we have fewer farmers working to feed millions more Americans?) and incorrectly claims that OSHA's budget hasn't kept pace with inflation. But in reality, $472 million in 2008 dollars is higher than $411 million in 2008 dollars – meaning OSHA's budget has not only kept up with inflation, but has increased by 15 percent.

Maybe the Sun's editors are unhappy that OSHA's funding hasn't more than tripled like public education funding has.  Whatever their thinking, to the Las Vegas Sun, the level of workplace safety is defined by the size of OSHA's budget and its staff.

And here we thought workplace safety was measured by the number of on-the-job injuries and fatalities.  Silly us.

When looking at workplace fatality numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, one sees that not only has the rate of fatalities declined (number of fatalities as a percentage of our growing labor force) but the raw number of fatalities has declined as well.

In 1992, the first year for which data is available online, there were 6,217 fatalities, while in 2007 (the latest data available) workplace fatalities were down to 5,488. That is a 12 percent decrease in fatalities despite a more than 10 percent increase in the labor force population.

By the way, the year with the highest number of fatalities, from the available online data, was 1994, with 6,632 – and Bill Clinton (D) was President of the United States.

Like many big-government, big-spending advocates, the Las Vegas Sun is more concerned with inputs like budgets and staff sizes than the alleged goals of the agency itself – in this case the actual reduction of fatalities and injuries on the job.

We would say there should be cause to celebrate here. OSHA has apparently improved its performance (outcomes and goals) with less staff, and only a slight budget increase – as opposed to public education, which has tripled its budget and drastically increased its staff, while not seeing any measure of improvement.  However, we think the decrease in workplace fatalities has nothing to do with OSHA, but instead with the increase in mechanization and higher-quality safety gear in America's more dangerous jobs, as well as a decrease in manufacturing jobs and a shift to more white-collar, safer desk jobs.