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Reinventing Government Inspections: Proposed Reform of the Occupational Safety and Health Act

October 1994

Citation: ELR 10588

Author: Douglas L. Tookey

In September 1991, 25 people died at the Imperial Food Products plant in Hamlet, North Carolina, when they were trapped in a factory fire.1 Witnesses to the fire said the employees could not escape because the building doors were locked, apparently to prevent pilferage.2 The North Carolina assistant labor commissioner subsequently stated3 that the locked doors constituted "serious violations" of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act).4 The plant, however, had never been inspected for health or safety violations in its 11 years of operation.5 In fact, with the number of inspectors in North Carolina at that time, it would have taken 65 years to visit every workplace in the state.6 OSH Act reform advocates cite the Imperial Food Plant fire to argue that worker protection laws must be strengthened.

Vice President Al Gore has suggested that the OSH Act might be a good place to start "reinventing government," and has proposed reforms intended to increase the frequency of inspections without hiring hundreds of new federal inspectors. Gore's report, Creating a Government That Works Better and Costs Less (the National Performance Review Report),7 champions privatizing the occupational safety and health inspection process to reduce government costs and encourage voluntary compliance with regulations. This Dialogue explores some of the advantages and disadvantages of Gore's proposed reforms, discusses the differences between Gore's proposal and reform bills currently pending before Congress, and addresses the U.S. Department of Labor's (DOL's) views on OSH Act reform.

Douglas L. Tookey is currently a Fulbright Scholar studying environmental law in Singapore. He received his J.D. from Cornell Law School, and clerked for U.S. District Judge Edward W. Nottingham, District of Colorado, and Judge Emilio M. Garza, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.