I am watching the political campaigns this year, and candidates are talking up what will make them popular with their base. I live in Texas congressional district 23, which stretches from San Antonio to well within the Mountain Time Zone. My congressman is Francisco (Quico) Canseco, and I am on his e-mail distribution list, and I hear from him and other candidates about oppressive government regulation. The words “oppressive government regulation” are mine, but they closely interpret what is being said. Oppressive government regulation is what is crippling American industry and causing higher unemployment. That’s a bad thing.
But these candidates never spell out just what oppressive government regulations they are against. I am sure they are not against regulations that prevent a company from shipping fraudulent products in interstate commerce. Beyond that, it is not clear to me just which government regulations these candidates want to abolish. So I have given this some thought.
Forty years ago I needed a job, and the state of Texas had one for me. I needed to be a registered professional engineer, and that got me the job. I was to work for the Texas Department of Health, and I was to inspect work places for safety violations.
Congress had previously come up with the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, whose job it was to make sure that the American workplace was safe for workers. I am confident the push behind OSHA was in large part a move by the labor unions as another way to harass their industrial masters, but I never figured out how that would work. Anyhow, companies and their lobbyists considered these rules to be oppressive and a hindrance to free enterprise.
In their wisdom, and lacking other recourse, the industrialists prevailed upon Congress to deal some of this oppressive power out to the individual states, where local administration of the law would be more immediate and applicable. And more friendly, besides.
Rather than slap huge fines on businesses that violated the congressionally-mandated safety standards, the task of the TDH would be to “help” the companies in violation to improve their profitability by reducing their accident rate, which would also reduce the rates they payed for government-mandated workers compensation insurance. That’s where I came in.
In the Dallas area I would visit companies that had higher claim rates (and therefore higher insurance premiums) and help them to see the error of their ways. And also (we claimed) to save money on insurance premiums.
It was an awakening experience for me. I had previously worked on an aircraft carrier, which is noted to be dangerous even when people are not shooting at you. I had also worked a summer job in a boat factory, which was not particularly dangerous, but had the potential to be so if you were careless about what you were doing. But I never had much experience in manufacturing and construction, and I had little clue how things got done in the real world.
Visiting the shops and manufacturing plants I learned how things got made and how the people there did their jobs. As I said, it was eye-opening. In addition to a view to the real-world manufacturing process, here is what I saw:
In one plant they made air conditioning systems for cars. One component was a magnetically-controlled clutch that engaged the compressor with the engine fan belt drive whenever the controller decided some cooling was needed. A thick steel plate was pulled in by a large magnetic coil, and that engaged the clutch. The plate was round, with holes in appropriate places, and it was not flat. It had deep ridges embossed in it to give it stiffness. As I recall the plate was made in a single operation in a press.
Round, flat plates were delivered to the press operator, and he put each in turn into the press. Then he actuated the press, which drove a cutting and forming die down onto the plate, simultaneously shearing the holes and embossing the plate. The plate was maybe 3/16-inch thick, and the force required to do this was quite large. When the press came down nothing was going to stop it from cutting and forming the plate. Not even the fingers of the operator.
That’s where the rules came in. The rules mandated several safeguards to ensure the operator went home with his fingers. The factory could employ any one or mixture of various devices to protect the operator. 1) Require the operator to actuate the press with both hands, meaning both hands would be away from the closing die. 2) Place a guard around the die so the operator could not get his hands near it when it was closing. 3) Require the operator to handle the metal plate with tongs rather than with his fingers. This process had broken down somewhere, and an operator had gone home without his fingers. That’s why I was there.
The supervisor carefully explained to me why several of the available options were not suitable to this operation. I could see that at least one option remained. “Have the operator handle the plate with tongs.”
Silly me, as the supervisor explained. If the die came down on the tongs it would damage the die. What an idiot I was not to think of this. Of course the operator’s fingers would leave never a mark on the die in case of a mishap.
On another occasion I visited a construction company. They did not exactly do construction. They did excavation for foundations, and drainage and such. A trenching company. It was a family business, and I visited the owner at his office, in his home. We discussed the requirements of his operation.
The rules specified what was allowed for different depths of trenches and for different types of soil. For example if the trench was being cut through solid limestone, then the trench did not have to be shored (braced). The sides were not going to cave in. If the soil were soft or even sand, then the sides needed to be slopped at a specified angle to keep the trench from caving in when workers were in it. It was not necessary to slope the sides if the walls of the trench were shored with strong timbers (or metal frames as I often see these days). Else workers must not be allowed in the trench, and all work must be done from the surface by machinery.
The owner of the company was irked at these restrictive regulations and inquired why the TDH was picking on him. I explained that we were were visiting companies that had numerous or costly workers compensation claims. I asked him if that were the case. He had to think back, and then he remembered. Yes, there had been an accident in which a trench caved in while his son was working in it.
On my job I had to dress professionally, and I was wearing my Hart Schaffner Marx suit. I was careful on this occasion not to do anything to decrease my investment in the suit.