Posted by Rojas @ 7:17 pm on December 29th 2008

The bright side of bad government

Today’s Washington Post features insightful commentary on Bush’s hand-picked head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration:

Foulke quickly acquired a reputation inside the Labor Department as a man who literally fell asleep on the job: Eyewitnesses said they saw him suddenly doze off at staff meetings, during teleconferences, in one-on-one briefings, at retreats involving senior deputies, on the dais at a conference in Europe, at an award ceremony for a corporation and during an interview with a candidate for deputy regional administrator.

His top aides said they rustled papers, wore attention-getting garb, pounded the table for emphasis or gently kicked his leg, all to keep him awake. But, if these tactics failed, sometimes they just continued talking as if he were awake. “We’ll be sitting there and things will fall out of his hands; people will go on talking like nothing ever happened,” said a career official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to a reporter.

In an interview, Foulke denied falling asleep at work, although he said he was often tired and sometimes listened with his eyes closed.

Before you get too outraged, here’s the sort of thing OSHA does:

In early 2001, an epidemiologist at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration sought to publish a special bulletin warning dental technicians that they could be exposed to dangerous beryllium alloys while grinding fillings. Health studies showed that even a single day’s exposure at the agency’s permitted level could lead to incurable lung disease.

God only knows how much damage might have been done by a more alert bureaucrat.


  1. You are mocking the beryllium warning or that its own permitted levels are dangerous?

    Comment by Jerrod — 12/30/2008 @ 3:23 am

  2. More the latter, but to some extent the former.

    OHSA tends to be an agency that hammers the compliant for trivial things while entirely ignoring its mission in industries where the threat of severe injury is perpetual (meat packing, for instance). That’s not a function of any one administration, either; it’s the same phenomenon that has law enforcement officers policing minor crimes and letting major criminals go untouched. It is also the sort of agency that makes a great weapon against political opponents.

    I don’t know that any really good case can be made that OHSA does more health-related good than economic damage, and I’d like to see a discussion of more effective means of creating workplace safety.

    Comment by Rojas — 12/30/2008 @ 5:37 pm

  3. It seems to me that any discussion runs a major risk of going off the rails right at the beginning with the proposal that we consider what industry would be like without it (kind of like the Union debate) and then start bringing up “how much is a person’s life worth” (human life damage vs economic damage).

    If we can accept that self-policing of safety and employee treatment doesn’t work and that OSHA and Unions are “better than nothing”, we at least have a framework for exploring a revised system. It needs to be independent and external and there must be some form of compliance verification and costs for failure to comply.

    One alternative could be chain of command responsibility and “eye for an eye”. If an employee gets hurt due to some circumstance that was preventable but not the employee’s negligence, the damage the employee suffers gets inflicted upon everyone in the chain of command up into the highest ranks of management and ownership. We can cut off a hand for every manager and CEO but I’m not sure how we’d go about meting out responsibility to shareholders; perhaps a percentage of your hand in accordance to how much of the company you own?

    I haven’t studied OSHA at all but I suspect that workers are probably on the whole better off as a result of it and as a result the economy is probably healthier overall. That isn’t saying that the department isn’t flawed, but the question then becomes “how do we make a good idea work right” as opposed to “what other ideas are out there”.

    Comment by Jerrod — 12/31/2008 @ 10:32 am

  4. Jerrod — I guess I disagree with everything in your post (which, given our beliefs, is no real surprise).

    If we don’t come up with some valuation for a person’s life, then it becomes impossible to do any sort of analysis of programs (other than, I suppose, some sort of relative analysis of cost per life saved among various programs). Valuations of life usually are generated by looking at decisions people make regarding their own safety. When I last looked at this (about 10-15 years ago), the accepted values were in the 3-5 million dollar range.

    I certainly don’t agree that self-policing of safety and employee treatment don’t work. With certainty on the ‘treatment’ measure, employers have a strong incentive to make their employees happy. Safety is a little dicier, since they can potentially exploit ignorance of danger for certain long-term dangers that wouldn’t effect productivity. I would think for the minimal number of cases that this would generate, however, that the legal system would be a better recourse then a regulatory body.

    I don’t even know what to say about that 3rd paragraph. ‘preventable but not the employees negligence’? Everything is preventable if you spend enough money… if cars drove at 5 mph at all times, there would be no automobile fatalities…

    OSHA is a bad idea and makes both workers and employers worse off. As a general rule, employees and employers have a strong incentive to make each other better off. OSHA has an incentive to make a lot of regulations to justify its existence.

    Comment by Redland Jack — 12/31/2008 @ 1:36 pm

  5. Actually, the government already does cost-benefit analysis of proposed regulations based upon a specified value of a human life. The current value, based on the willingness of people to pay to avoid specific risks, is about $6.9 million. No doubt this will strike James as a bit on the high side.

    If you want decisionmaking of this sort not to assign an arbitrary value to people’s lives, you will need to look outside of government.

    Comment by Rojas — 12/31/2008 @ 3:58 pm

  6. A fair portion of my post was me trying to think what others would say, not necessarily my own opinions. I’m lefty, but not that lefty.

    I’m interested in the basis for your belief that self-policing would work though. There is nothing in history that seems to support that. Of course that isn’t to say that there aren’t cases when it does work. There are many many, perhaps even most, employers that truly care about their employees and strive to treat them fairly and safely.

    But I see nothing to dissuade me from the belief that there are, have been, and always will be exploitative greedy bastards that will not do anything they aren’t forced to if it costs them anything. This is what we have to deal with.

    My comment about “employee negligence” was a clumsy attempt to limit the discussion to factors that are the employers responsibility. If an employee is hungover and falls into a vat of chemicals, it’s his own damn fault but if the catwalk above it collapses, it the employers.

    This is maybe like one of the questions in justice theory. Would you rather have a system that never punishes an innocent at the cost of guilty going free at times or one that gets all the criminals but scoops up innocents at times? Would you rather have a work system that isn’t as “free” as it could be but errs on the side of safety or one that has more flexibility but then makes more mistakes that are paid in human flesh?

    In spite of my apparent support for a system like OSHA, I’m fully aware of its bureaucratic shortcomings and support efforts to reform it. But this isn’t anythign specific to OSHA and is more of an issue with bureaucracy.

    Comment by Jerrod — 12/31/2008 @ 8:07 pm

  7. I don’t recollect that I advocated self-policing. There are any number of intermediate approaches lying between red tape insanity on the one hand and total anarchy on the other.

    Bear in mind that one of my objections to OHSA is that a political approach to worker safety tends to grant carte blanche to companies which enjoy political favor, such as the meat packing industry.

    Comment by Rojas — 12/31/2008 @ 9:42 pm

  8. So the solution would be to privatize it, get it out of government and away from political influence?

    Comment by Jerrod — 12/31/2008 @ 10:26 pm

  9. I just don’t see how an employer can ‘exploit’ the employees. Hmmm… other than maybe some corner cases, which is perhaps what you’re worried about. Conceivably in a ‘one horse’ town, where there is really only one employer and the people are particularly poor and ignorant, some opportunity for (at least short-term) exploitation might exist.

    Other than something like that, though, the labor market is (relatively) robust. Even during the current environment, if an employer is being abusive, the employees will just hang onto the job while they look for employment elsewhere and then jump ship. The only way the employer will be able to retain employees is to pay them more, to make up for the poor environment.

    Comment by Redland Jack — 12/31/2008 @ 11:54 pm

  10. If you really believe that’s how the world works, I can’t imagine what I could do to convince you otherwise.

    Free market ideology suggests that the tension between running a business as lean as possible while still retaining employees will result in optimum output. There is a belief that employees will refuse the work if it isn’t paid appropriately and if they take the job, well that settles it, that’s what the appropriate benefits are.

    The problem with this ideology is that it fails to incorporate total costs. So many things are externalized as to render it a fantasy, something that doesn’t really exist. Without some system (unions, goverment oversight, courts criminal and civil) to force this kind of accounting, it won’t get done. An easy glance at history or even just around the world today should illustrate this.

    If there weren’t safety regulations and wage/labor laws, I don’t doubt for a second that we’d have dangerous work environments filled with overworked employees getting paid a pittance. Not everyone, everywhere, but enough to bother me.

    Maybe I’m talking about a different topic than OSHA. I’ve never had to deal with them in my work experience. What can be done about fixing it, or what system could feasibly replace it?

    Comment by Jerrod — 1/1/2009 @ 1:54 am

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