Raab English 120 26 October 2009 Regulations slow as the Meat Industry pushes faster production During the same years when the working conditions at America’s meatpacking plants became more dangerous – when line speeds increased and illegal immigrants replaced skilled workers – the federal government greatly reduced the enforcement of health and safety laws. OSHA had long been despised by the nation’s manufacturers, who considered the agency a source of meddlesome regulations and unnecessary red tape. When Ronald Regan was elected president in 1980, OSHA was already underfunded and understaffed: its 1300 inspectors were responsible for the safety of more than 5 million workplaces across the country. A typical American employer could expect an OSHA inspection about once every eighty years. Nevertheless, the Regan administration was determined to reduce OSHA’s authority even further, as party of the push for deregulation. The number of OSHA inspectors was eventually cut by 20 percent, and in 1981 the agency adopted a new policy of “voluntary compliance”. Instead of arriving unannounced at a factory and performing an inspection, OSHA employees were required to look a company’s injury log before setting foot inside the plant. If the records showed an injury rate at the factory lower than the national average for all manufacturers, the OSHA inspector had to turn around and leave – without entering the plant, examining its equipment, or talking to any of its workers. These injury logs were kept and maintained by company officials. For most of the 1980s OSHA’s relationship with the meatpacking industry was far from adversarial. While the number of serious injuries rose, the number of OSHA inspections fell. The death of a worker on the job was punished with a fine of just a few hundred dollars. At a gathering of meat company executives in October of 1987, OSHA’s safety director, Barry White, promised to change federal safety standards that “appear amazingly stupid to you or overburdening or just not useful.” According to an account of the meeting later published in the Chicago Tribune, the safety director at OSHA – the federal official most responsible for protecting the lives of meatpacking workers – acknowledged his own lack of qualification for the job. “I know very well that you know more about safety and health in the meat industry than I do,” White told the executives. “And you know more about safety and health in the meat industry than any single employee at OSHA.” OSHA’s voluntary compliance policy did indeed reduce the number of recorded injuries in meatpacking plants. It did not, however, reduce the number of people getting hurt. It merely encouraged companies, in the words of a subsequent congressional investigation, “to understate injuries, to falsify records, and to cover up accidents.” At the IBP beef plant in Dakota City, Nebraska, for example, the company kept two sets of injury logs: one of the recording every injury and illness at the slaughterhouse, the other provided to visiting OSHA
inspectors and researchers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. During a three month period in
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