Like her boss President G.W. Bush, Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao is offering her version of Labor Department history over the last 8 years.  She posts prominently on the Department’s homepage her  “accomplishing milestones for American workers” including the claim: 

“the current workplace injury and illness rate is at its lowest level in history having dropped 21% since 2002.”

I suppose she and those at OSHA who drank the Kool-Aid choose to ignore the empirical evidence that suggests that this substantial decline “corresponds directly with changes in OSHA recordkeeping rules.”  [Friedman & Forst, 2007]  

Secretary Chao also claims to have implemented a “common-sense approach to ergonomics,” replacing a rule that might have “cost more than $4.5 billion.”  Oops! she fails to mention (or intentionally leaves out) that the congressionally-rejected OSHA ergonomics rule had  projected annual direct benefits of $9.1 billion.  That’s a pretty good return on the investment in workers’ health, but ignored in Secretary’s Chao’s version of history.   Yep, that’s Secretary Chao’s legacy, according to her.

Her characterization of the facts concerning OSHA’s final rule on ergonomics (2000) is further skewed when she describes it as: 

“the previous administration’s ‘one-size-fits-all’ rule”;

it was not.  Opponents of the rule didn’t like it, in part, because it was not prescriptive enough.  The rule left responsibility for identify and correcting ergonomic hazards to the employer (rightfully so), and required worker participation in the hazard recognition process.

She also says the rule’s:

“efficacy was challenged by many in the scientific community”;

it was not.  The majority of independent public health researchers and occupational health care providers supported the OSHA standard to prevent work-related musculoskeletal disorders.  Moreover, a congressionally-mandated independent panel of scientists appointed by the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine concluded:

“the weight of the evidence justifies the introduction of appropriate and selected interventions to reduce the risk of musculoskeletal disorders of the low back and upper extremities.  These include, but are not confined to, the application of ergonomic principles to reduce physical as well as psychosocial stressors.  To be effective, the intervention programs should include employee involvment, employer commitment, and the development of integrated programs that address equipment design, work procedures, and organizational characteristics.”

The Secretary also boasts that her common-sense approach to ergonomic hazards included “industry-specific guidelines,” but OSHA’s performance issuing such guidelines over the Secretary’s 8-year tenure has been dismal.  Did OSHA issue 30? 20? 10? industry-specific guidelines?   Nope, just 4 documents, covering shipyards (2008),  poultry processing (2004), retail grocery stores (2004) and nursing homes (2003).

Secretary Chao asserts that under her watch she’s created “Safer Workplaces for Miners,” claiming new 

“effective regulatory measures, strengthening enforcement, and improving training, technology and outreach.” 

I wonder how many of these measures would have been taken if not for the disasters at Sago, Aracoma Alma, Darby, and Crandall Canyon.  She makes no mention of the men who needlessly lost their lives, ignoring that these reforms were written in coal miners’ blood.

Some of the Labor Secretary’s other proud accomplishments include:

  • Combating Corruption Harming Union Members
  • Strengthened Union Financial Disclosure Reports
  • Enhanced Union Conflict-of-Interest Disclosures
  • Rebuilding Labor Oversight Capability and Making Information Available to Union Members and the Public

The changes are indicative of Secretary Chao’s fierce anti-union philosophy.  Under her tenure, the Department spent about $2,700 per labor organization to implement and enforce these rules, while OSHA and the Wage and Hour Division spend about $26 per covered workplace.  (John Lund, PhD’s analysis in AFL-CIO document.)    This fact speaks volumes about her true legacy—it was not about workers and protecting their rights, but instead, making sure labor rights didn’t stand in the way of economic interests.

On Friday, January 9, we’ll get a preview of a new era at the Labor Department with the confirmation hearing of Hilda Solis to be the 25th Secretary of Labor.  Under her leadership, I hope the terms “workers’ economic needs,” “labor rights,” “employee involvement,” and “labor unions” are no longer dirty words, but are embraced as guiding principles for the Department’s work.

Celeste Monforton, MPH, DrPH is with the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy at the George Washington University School of Public Health.  She worked at the U.S. Department of Labor from 1991-2001.