OSHA Does The Darndest Things

Edwin G. Foulke Jr. is administrator of the Occupational Safety and Healthy Administration.
Edwin G. Foulke Jr. is administrator of the Occupational Safety and Healthy Administration. (Dennis Cook - AP)
By Cindy Skrzycki
Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Could he be the next Jay Leno?

Normally, assistant secretaries at the Labor Department aren't stand-up comedians. They give low-key speeches about the mission of the agency, especially if they run the Occupational Safety and Health Administration , which focuses on worker safety and health. They use lots of numbers and thank everyone for the good job they are doing to cut illness and injury rates.

But new OSHA chief Edwin G. Foulke Jr. , a South Carolina labor law attorney, was a bit more informal when he gave a speech early this month meant to highlight the good work of children who had won a safety-on-the-job poster contest sponsored by the American Society of Safety Engineers .

Depending on who was listening, his talk, in his second month on the job, was either a big success or an offensive flop.

Gearing the speech toward the children in the audience, Foulke said kids were often smarter than adults. The name of the speech, "Adults Do the Darndest Things," was a play on the popular Art Linkletter television show and books in which children were quizzed and often responded with funny, but sometimes inappropriate, answers.

The approach clearly did not play well with everyone, depending which side of the labor-management divide the listener or reader was on.

In a year when families lost loved ones in multiple mining accidents and at a BP refinery in Ohio, the labor community interpreted the remarks as a slam at workers, blaming them for stupid mistakes on the job. Overall, there were close to 6,000 fatalities in 2004, the latest year available, plus 4.3 million injuries and illnesses.

What disturbed labor groups, critics of the Bush administration and families of workers who have been injured or killed were not the kids' posters, but the pictures Foulke juxtaposed alongside them to illustrate dangerous workplace practices.

They were a series of shots of workers doing improbable, dangerous things: someone standing on a ladder in a pool changing a light bulb, a guy on a ladder propped up against a power line, a worker repairing a truck propped up on its side, individuals covered in hazmat suits with an onlooker wearing shorts and T-shirt. ("I hope he wore sunscreen," quipped Foulke.)

"Looking at the posters," said Foulke in the speech, "I was reminded of a couple examples of safety and health bloopers that are both humorous and horrible." He repeated the bloopers in a speech a week later to a Georgia trade group.

It wasn't long before the remarks were being discussed on a widely read blog that covers labor-management issues called Confined Space.

"OSHA Director Ed Foulke Blames Workplace Carnage on Dumb Employees," read the headline, written by Jordan Barab , a former OSHA and union official.

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