reWorking Michigan: Workplace Safety Rules: Nuisance or Necessity?

Apr 9, 2012

Our report this week looks at safety in the workplace.  In 2011, the state of Michigan created the Workplace Safety Advisory Rules Committee.  For months, its members combed through volumes of health and safety rules applying to a wide range of industries.  The committee recommended eliminating hundreds of regulations it deemed obsolete or burdensome.  State lawmakers are now considering that report.  In the meantime, some labor groups say the recommendations go too far.

Michigan’s fabled manufacturing tradition is long and expansive.  Our history is written on shop floor clipboards, a deliberate code of safety do’s and don’ts. 

But the eraser is in hand.  In a 270-page report issued in January, the state Workplace Safety Rules Advisory Committee recommended eliminating more than 600 rules it deemed were unnecessarily restrictive, or were a duplication of federal safety standards.

“We know that our job providers are out there trying to establish a very safe workplace,” says committee member Delaney Newberry.  She's the director of human resource policy for the Michigan Manufacturers Association.  "We know that workplaces have gotten safer over time, and we don’t think it’s very necessary for regulations to be very, very prescriptive.”

Newberry says the MMA has been pushing for a more streamlined regulatory climate for years.  She believes cutting certain rules would allow employers to comply with the law in ways that best fit their individual work sites.  Newberry says industries already do a good job at self-policing.

“A lot of our members actually have corporate policies that exceed government-established regulations,” she says.  “So we want to make sure that the workplace regulations are not conflicting with that.  We want to have common sense regulation, not necessarily ‘gotcha’ regulation.”

Labor groups say don't eliminate standards commissions

But “gotcha” is just what some workers fear they’ll get.  One recommendation would eliminate three standards commissions that operate under MIOSHA (Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration).  The report claims the commission members are “subject to political influence, are not accountable to the regulated community and are not necessarily experts in their area of regulation.”

“You’d be hard pressed to find anybody who knows more about this stuff than these people," says Tim Hughes, a consultant for the United Auto Workers International.  " So to say they’re not experts, I think is a little disingenuous.”

Hughes says the commissioners have ample experience, having come from the ranks of  inspection and industrial hygiene.  Hughes says if approved, the recommendation would remove a lot of people with a wealth of accumulated  knowledge.

“These are the people who have the most at stake with workplace safety; they’re the ones that get affected financially and directly by injury when accidents take place,” says Hughes.  “So they’re, I think, uniquely qualified to serve on these commissions.  So, having them temporarily appointed on an ad hoc basis, I don’t think is the best way to go.”

Report tends to favor savings over safety

The report also points to financial savings. 

“We do know that if we have rules and regulations that are more restrictive than our counterparts in other states, then it makes the cost of doing business here higher," says the MMA's Delaney Newberry.  "And that gives our competitors a competitive advantage and it gives us an unlevel playing field.”

“That’s a very worthy, lofty goal to have," says Michigan State University professor Scott Tobey.  He has decades of experience teaching OSHA-approved safety practices to workers in high risk industries.   "We should also address at the same time, is getting this rule out of the way going to be better for employee safety, or is it going to harm employee safety?  And I’m not seeing that in here (the report).”

Tobey says most reform efforts tend to focus less on employee safety than on employer savings.  However, he also says he understands when companies bemoan a regulatory environment they claim puts Michigan at a loss.  Tobey says the best case scenario would be for consistent safety compliance across the country.

“So, I can’t move to Indiana and get away from having to comply with this because I can save money if I move my business to Indiana," he says.  "But likewise, you could argue, that should be a worldwide requirement.”

The advisory committee report is under review in the Michigan House.  So far, no legislation has been proposed, and it’s unclear if or when state lawmakers may decide to act on the recommendations.