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Environmental Health and Safety Blog | EHSWire

OSHA at 40: Taking on a Mid-life Crisis?

Posted by Shivi Kakar

Oct 11, 2010 1:00:07 AM

Bruce Groves - CIH

OSHA at fortyIn July, David Michaels, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health, published a memo to his staff at OSHA highlighting several new approaches that OSHA is using (or planning to use) in its effort to protect workers.  Dr. Michaels is building on the progress of his predecessors and reinforcing some of the weak links in the system created both by Congress and former administrations. In his recent letter, Dr. Michaels reviews some legacy issues that limit OSHA-influence in creating safer workplaces such as

  • OSHA has only 2,000 inspectors responsible for the health and safety of 130 million workers at 7 million worksites

  • OSHA fines are too small to have an adequate deterrent effect

  • OSHA standards provide limited protection to whistleblowers from retaliation

  • OSHA occupational exposure standards have been established for only a small percentage of chemicals used in US workplaces (most of those are based on out-of-date science) with a slow and resource-intensive standard-setting process

Dr. Michaels states that OSHA needs to transform how it addresses workplace hazards, and in its relationship to employers and workers. As such he outlines a new strategy that is a clear shift from recent years indicating that there is a “new sheriff in town” and business (ALL businesses) should take heed.  Here are some of my extrapolations and thoughts regarding 6 of these transformational items -- consider how they will affect your business or workplace.
1.       Stronger Enforcement:  Some Employers Need Incentives to Do the Right Thing

OSHA will have more and bigger sticks.  OSHA is redirecting resources to conduct inspections of high risk industries and tasks including ergonomics.

My take:  There is always danger when the pendulum swings from one extreme to another.   It is our experience that small businesses are still the sector that has the greatest need to upgrade their H&S compliance programs and the greatest vulnerability to getting OSHA citations.  They need the most help in identifying hazards, understanding the regulations and in taking the steps necessary to protect their employees.   We have seen OSHA take a much harder line on enforcement of non-compliance for these smaller companies and levying fines for serious and willful violations that are excessive considering their size.  This focus on hard line enforcement for small businesses can be in conflict with OSHA’s other acknowledgment that small businesses need assistance to understand the complexities of the OSHA regulations. 

OSHA will use a shame strategy to push employers to do the right thing by publicizing employers with major violations.

My take:  The most common incentives for compliance in the past are either a company’s willingness to do the right thing by their workers or their mindful eye toward factors contributing to the bottom line such as workers compensation insurance costs.  By increasing inspections, fines and publicity for violators, stakeholders and employees will discover the truth about wrongdoers.  Most companies can’t afford the poor publicity much less the added financial burden of fines and penalties.

 2.        Ensure Workers Have a Voice

OSHA is using several means to reach immigrants and non-English speakers -- especially in high hazard industries. One example of this targeted push is a recent conference – the National Action Summit for Latino Worker Health and Safety – that brought together leadership and grassroots professionals. And, OSHA training grants are focused on training non-English speakers as compliance officers looking to see that employers are providing understandable training to their workers.

My take:  Realizing that our workforce for many industries is largely composed of workers from foreign countries who may not understand English at a level that applies to doing their job safely under American standards, OSHA training grants allow workers or at least union shops to receive health and safety training in a language that they understand.  AND OSHA compliance officers are going to be checking with workers of all nationalities to see that they do understand health and safety law.

OSHA is reviewing its whistleblower protection policies.

 3.       Refocus and Strengthen the Compliance Assistance Programs

OSHA is developing more compliance assistance documents for those without technical backgrounds, including those with limited English-language literacy.

OSHA will refocus its compliance assistance to support small businesses.

My take:  OSHA understands that the regulations are hard to interpret and the compliance assistance materials are necessary if non-technical personal and small businesses are to be in compliance.  Look for a broader base of all compliance assistance materials and an increase of Spanish-language materials.

 4.       Change Workplace Culture: Employers Must "Find and Fix" Workplace Hazards

OSHA wants employers to go beyond simply attempting to meet OSHA standards by implementing risk-based workplace injury and illness prevention programs.

OSHA is developing a rule mandating workplace injury and illness prevention programs. 

My take:  This could be a fundamental improvement in the function of safety and health programs much as the improvements seen when the Hazard Communication Standard was instituted in the mid-1980s.  OSHA has mandated the development of comprehensive H&S programs in construction and hazardous waste but does not require the same for the rest of general industry.   The requirement of implementing workplace injury and illness programs will close most of this gap.

 5.       Develop Innovative Approaches to Addressing New (and Old) Hazards: Improve Intra-Agency Collaboration

Dr. Michaels acknowledges that the OSHA process for issuing new standards does not work.  He has appointed an internal task force to come up with short-term and long-term solutions to this problem.

My take:  Just looking at the OSHA permissible exposure limits (PELs) - the majority of which are based on data developed in the late 1960’s. We have more data now, more sophisticated measuring devices, new substances and yet OSHA is stuck working with these obsolete PELs.   In 1989 OSHA tried to update the Agency PELs in one big swoop, but the process barely got off the ground before it was tied up in court debating cost of update vs. cost of lives saved. By acknowledging that the process is designed so that regulations and standards don’t change, we are hopeful that the process will be modified to allow for updated and expanded standards.

6.       Improve and Modernize Workplace Injury and Illness Tracking: Strengthen our Focus on Accurate Recordkeeping

OSHA is transitioning to electronic data collection to take advantage of the many benefits of electronic injury tracking.

My take: It will be interesting to see if OSHA will create a reporting threshold that will allow the Agency to be more proactive …much the way the EPA mandates recordkeeping reporting for companies that meet chemical use or release thresholds. 

So – what do you think will happen with Dr. Michaels’ plans for the transformation of OSHA?  Do you consider that the threat of more inspections and public humiliation will encourage violators to change their approach to worker protection?  How about the concept of “Injury and Illness Prevention Programs” – studies have shown that these programs do reduce injury and illness rates – but will OSHA be able to rollout a new standard that is a paradigm shift?

Topics: Emilcott, OSHA, indoor air quality, health and safety, General Industry H&S, General EHS, Construction H&S, H&S Training, Compliance, worker safety, Occupational Health, Occupational Safety, Lab Safety & Electrical, emergency response training, Occupational Training, Safety Training in Spanish, water safety, small business

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