If war is too serious a matter to be left in the hands of generals, so also the safety of workers cannot be left to the care of labour department officials. At least such seems to be the case in the US.
Latest trends show that agencies like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) are more concerned with promoting the interests of the industries than with the safety of the workers themselves.
Seven years ago, a Missouri doctor discovered a troubling pattern at a microwave popcorn plant in the town of Jasper. After an additive was modified to produce a more buttery taste, nine workers came down with a rare, life-threatening disease that was ravaging their lungs.
After painstaking investigation, scientists at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health concluded that the workers became ill after exposure to diacetyl, a food-flavoring agent.
But the (OSHA), charged with overseeing workplace safety, did not step up plant inspections or mandate safety standards for businesses, even as more workers became ill.
Two days ago a top official at the agency told lawmakers at a Congressional hearing that it would prepare a safety bulletin and planned to inspect a few dozen of the thousands of food plants that use the additive.
That response reflects OSHA's practices under the Bush administration. Across Washington, political appointees — often former officials of the industries they now oversee — have eased regulations or weakened enforcement of rules on issues like driving hours for truckers, logging in forests and corporate mergers, critics say.
Since George W. Bush became president, OSHA has killed dozens of existing and proposed regulations and delayed adopting others. For example, it has repeatedly identified silica dust, which can cause lung cancer, and construction site noise as health hazards that warrant new safeguards for nearly three million workers, but it has yet to require them.
"The people at OSHA have no interest in running a regulatory agency," said Dr. David Michaels, an occupational health expert at George Washington University who has written extensively about workplace safety. "If they ever knew how to issue regulations, they've forgotten. The concern about protecting workers has gone out the window."
Agency officials defend their performance, saying that workplace deaths and injuries have declined during their tenure. They have been considering new standards and revising outdated ones that were unduly burdensome on businesses, they said, adding that they have moved cautiously on new rules because those require extensive scientific and economic analysis.
But without an OSHA standard, which would establish the permissible level of exposure for workers, companies can set any limit of exposure they want.
Instead of regulations, Mr. Foulke and top officials at other agencies favor a "voluntary compliance strategy," reaching agreements with industry associations and companies to police themselves.
Critics say the voluntary programs tend to have little focus on specific hazards and no enforcement power. Because only companies with strong safety records are eligible, they argue, the programs do not force less-conscientious businesses to improve their workplaces. A 2004 study by the Government Accountability Office found some promising results from such programs, but recommended against expanding them until their effectiveness could be assessed.
Three of the biggest industries regulated by OSHA — transportation, agribusiness and construction — have given more than $630 million in political campaign contributions since 2000, with nearly three-quarters of that money going to Republicans. Predictably the Bush administration has promised to address their concerns.