Feb 7 2000

For ABC’s John Stossel, Workers’ Safety Is Regulatory Excess

Contact: Rachel Coen, (212) 633-6700 x318

MEDIA ADVISORY: For ABC‘s John Stossel, Workers’ Safety Is Regulatory Excess

On January 4th, the Washington Post broke a story that soon appeared in countless media outlets: The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) had released a letter in mid-November outlining some guidelines for an employer concerned with providing a safe workplace for employees working at home. Labor Secretary Alexis Herman decided to withdraw the letter on January 5, citing “widespread confusion” about what it actually meant.

One reporter who went further than most in confusing the issue was ABC‘s John Stossel. An unabashed proponent of “free market” ideology and critic of government regulation, Stossel jumped at the chance on 20/20‘s January 21 broadcast to mock the idea of “government safety rules” that provide for a safe working environment.

OSHA issued the guidelines in response to a Texas company’s inquiry about their obligations regarding employees working from home. But Stossel’s report gives viewers the impression that OSHA simply decided to expand its reach, calling the guidelines “new rules” when in fact they were actually an explanation of how the “old” rules applied to at-home work. As the Washington Post correctly reported (1/4/00), “The advisory is not a proposed rule, but rather a declaration of existing policy the agency deems already to be in effect.”

The ABC broadcast opens with a joke: “Remember those knock-knock jokes? Well, guess who’s there? It’s ‘Big Brother.’ That is, the government, trying to protect us in our own homes.” While that implies that regulators could come to your door some time soon, the guidelines make abundantly clear that no such plans exist.

Stossel’s fundamental understanding of the issue is called into question when he claims that he could “sue ABC” if, for example, he tripped “on the stuff the kids leave on the stairs.” Under no circumstances could he sue his employer for OSHA violations, and the safety rules apply to a home worksite (not the entire home) or to dangerous work-related conditions that an employer should have reasonably known about. Toys left on the stairs would not likely fall into either category.

Stossel also twists words to make his point. For example, OSHA’s Charles Jeffress told Stossel: “Since OSHA was created 27 years ago, workplace fatalities have been cut in half.” Stossel’s response is to state: “The regulators can cite specific successes, but look at the record.” Clearly, Jeffress was citing OSHA’s overall record-not specific successes. Stossel then goes on to name a few anecdotal cases of OSHA’s malfeasance, using the precise tactic he accused Jeffress of using.

Stossel’s obvious slant is revealed in the charge he puts to an OSHA consultant: “Your critics say you’re a bunch of clueless busybodies trying to micromanage everybody’s life.”

It’s unclear who these critics might be-other than John Stossel, or the business lobbying groups that have mounted a campaign to defeat OSHA’s new proposed standards on ergonomics. Much of Stossel’s report is really an attack on these proposals, which are entirely unrelated to the work-at-home controversy. Stossel says OSHA’s proposal “is real complicated. This is 300 pages of fine print.” In fact, the guidelines are 10 and a half pages long, with 290 pages of supplemental material.

Stossel refers to ergonomics as “a new and uncertain science.” But ergonomics has existed for at least seventy years, as employers have tried to maximize output and increase productivity in the work force. (Other experts trace the history of ergonomics back to the 1700s.) And a report by the National Academy of Sciences confirmed that in workplaces where stresses on the upper body, neck and back were more common, “the positive relationship between the occurrence of musculoskeletal disorders and the conduct of work is clear.” (New York Times, 10/2/98)

Stossel invites a consultant into his own home office, giving the impression that other workers might soon have to do the same thing, since “OSHA may soon require my home office to meet its exacting standards.” But OSHA standards are requirements for employers, not employees. While Stossel’s stunt might make for good television, it is not indicative of what might happen in the real world.

More importantly, a report like Stossel’s ignores the reality of OSHA. The agency is notoriously understaffed; inspections have fallen by over 30 percent in the mid-’90s, and home inspections number around 10 per year (In These Times, 2/21/00). Such inspections have involved, not toys on stairs, but clear violations of law, such as home workers using molten lead or dangerous adhesives without proper safety precautions.

In the end, Stossel takes a news report from another media outlet and twists it beyond recognition into an attack on the idea that a safe working environment should be government’s business. It’s an exercise in bad faith-and bad journalism.