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States Leading the Way on Worker Safety and Health

Since the creation of federal OSHA, individual states have been able to create their own state OSHA programs as long as they are “at least as effective” as federal OSHA. Today, 22 states or territories have OSHA-approved state plans. One important feature of state OSHA programs is that they must cover both private and state and local government workers, whereas in states covered by federal OSHA, state and local government workers are exempt (about eight million public employees in the U.S. still lack OSHA protections). Five additional states and one U.S. territory (Virgin Islands) have OSHA-approved state plans that cover state and local government workers only.

Most state plans merely follow federal OSHA. When OSHA publishes a new standard, states have up to six months to adopt the standard or something stronger. But states also have the power to set their own standards and many have, going far beyond the minimum standards set by federal OSHA. The most recent example of this is several states creating emergency standards to protect workers from COVID-19 in the absence of federal action.

Outside of the OSHA system, several states are also taking innovative approaches to improve worker safety and health that are worth highlighting. Let’s take a look at the best aspects of various state OSHA programs and what some states are doing that could (and should) be emulated.

Standard Setting

Federal OSHA takes years, sometimes decades, to issue new standards. Even then, new standards are often compromises due to technical and economic feasibility. For example, federal OSHA’s lead standard is decades old and we now know that lead is toxic at much lower levels than we thought previously. However, the OSHA standard has not been updated.

Several state programs, including California, Washington and Virginia, have a standards board that oversees new standard development. For example, California has standards on aerosol transmissible diseases, heat stress and workplace violence prevention – none of which exist at the federal level. Washington extended the OSHA hearing conservation standard to construction (the industry is exempt from the federal standard). And Virginia was the first state to issue a permanent standard to protect workers from COVID-19 on the job. Every state plan should have a mechanism for issuing new standards rather than only reacting to standards issued by federal OSHA.

Occupational Health Clinics

Workers who get exposed to toxic materials on the job can develop occupational diseases. But the workers’ compensation system is notoriously bad at compensating workers when this happens, partly because it’s difficult to make the connection with workplace exposure and partly because many doctors are unfamiliar with occupational diseases and how to diagnose them. New York State found a solution by using funds from workers’ compensation premiums to fund a network of occupational health clinics throughout the state. These clinics have specialists trained in identifying occupational diseases as well as industrial hygienists who can go to the workplace, identify toxic exposures and make recommendations for improvements. This use of workers’ compensation funds will actually prevent more workers from becoming ill and is something other states should implement.

Workers’ Compensation

Workers’ compensation in the U.S. is a mess. It is generally inadequate for all but the most serious injuries and many workplace injuries go unreported and uncompensated. In most states the system is fragmented, with employers buying insurance from a variety of carriers. In some states, such as Texas, employers are not even required to carry such insurance.

Notably, some states (Washington and Ohio) have a single-payer system where all employers must get insurance through the state. The state then uses some of those resources for injury prevention efforts. Washington state’s SHARP program funds research on the most common work-related injuries and illnesses in the state and how they can be prevented. Ohio uses workers’ compensation funds for its Safety Grants Program, which helps employers pay for equipment that prevents injuries and illnesses, ultimately reducing compensation costs. California doesn’t have a single-payer system, but has an option called the State Compensation Insurance Fund, which gives employers a cost-effective alternative to private carriers. These options could be enacted even in states that don’t have an OSHA state plan.

States are often said to be laboratories for experimentation in governance. We should encourage more states to go beyond the minimum protections required by federal OSHA and be innovators in protecting their workers from hazards on the job.

[Scott Schneider]

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